Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Big Atonement: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

The 29th Portland International Film Festival is in full-swing, and though I haven’t actually ventured out to see any of the films on the big screen yet (that $9 ticket price is just too rich for my wallet at the moment), I did manage to track down an import DVD of Park Chan-wook’s latest film, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (or Lady Vengeance as it has sadly been rechristened here in the States), the third film in Park’s loose “Vengeance Trilogy” and the follow-up to 2003’s magnificent and unforgettable hardboiled thriller Oldboy. For those of you who have seen Oldboy (and if you haven’t and still call yourself a film lover, you better hand in your resignation) or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance from 2002, you know what cinematic brilliance Park is capable of. The Korean director is a sly and ruthless provocateur who manages to balance a brazen visual sense with compelling melodramatic (sometimes) storylines and tortured guilt-plagued characters. And, oh yes, then there’s the violence. There’s no getting around the fact that Park’s trilogy of vengeance-fuelled films are frequently savage and shocking in their willingness to plunge us into the crimson-induced obsessions of his protagonists. But his films are also exhilarating, ironic, surreal (who can forget the ant seated on the subway in Oldboy?), and humorous.

Lynda and I saw Oldboy at last year’s PIFF and were stunned by the film. I quickly sought out Mr. Vengeance, Joint Security Area, and his contribution to the Asian horror anthology film Three… Extremes, entitled Cut, and easily became a committed fan of his work. Here was a director to be reckoned with, though I was a bit perplexed as to where he would venture creatively next, especially when I heard that he was going to follow-up Oldboy with another revenge storyline. Shouldn’t he take a break from all that mayhem, I thought, before completing the trilogy? Maybe venture out and make an outright comedy or return to the political thriller mode that he no doubt can pull off, like in J.S.A. And even if he did make the final film in the trilogy at this point in his career, there was no way that Park was going to be able to match the creative peak of Oldboy. Right?

Wrong. I’m not going to say much about the plot of Lady Vengeance because knowing little or nothing about the film is the only way to go into it, the only way to fully experience the seductive power of its intent and to ride the emotional tidal waves that overpower during the film’s second half. Technically, the entire film is an unmitigated tour de force—elegantly composed yet willing to circumvent viewer’s expectations by changing the dramatic beats of the traditional i.e. basic revenge storyline whenever we grow too comfortable or acclimated to what is transpiring on screen. No doubt, Park loves to jazz about. But if there was nothing substantial to anchor the excess of style, I would have little patience with him and I don’t think that Lady Vengeance would be able to weather the repeatability factor (I watched it twice in 24 hours). Actress Lee Yeong-ae gives one of the finest performances of the year as the stunningly attractive Lee Geum-ja, the titular Lady V. who is bent on some serious payback once she’s released from prison after 13 years, and the fabulous Choi Min-sik (Oh Dae-su from Oldboy) as Mr. Baek easily grounds the film when Park’s visual flourishes are in full flight (which is most of the time). But there’s genuine emotion amidst all of the sensational mayhem, and Park’s solemn resolution after so much brutality is what last longest in my mind.

Lady Vengeance
is harrowing stuff and much of its content is intentionally inflammatory and shocking. And though it’s difficult to defend the film without giving away some of its more startling moments, there is a method to it all and ultimately a responsible and moral exploration of how violence corrupts the soul. It’s also fiendishly entertaining and the best damn feel-bad film around.

(Sympathy for) Lady Vengeance plays at the PIFF on 2/17/06 and 2/18/06. It’s also available on import DVD here.

No comments: