Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the final in Park Chan-Wook’s masterful Vengeance trilogy, and rather than label it the ‘weakest’ of the three I prefer to describe Lady V as the ‘least great’ – as there is precious little wrong with this film.
After a really effective title sequence we meed the ‘Lady’ of the title, Lee Guem-Ja upon her release from prison after serving a thirteen and a half year sentence for the abduction and murder of a 6 year old boy; despite their being doubt about her culpability, and indeed some evidence to the contrary. Even with a conviction the then 20 year-old pretty and stylish young woman captured the nation Schappelle Corby style (google it non-Australians) with people emulating her fashion sense, so over a decade later Guem-Ja’s release is still a minor media event.
We learn that while inside Guem-Ja was a model inmate, never asking for special treatment and in fact volunteering herself to help others for seemingly no reward. She became known to those inside as ‘Guem-Ja the kind hearted’, something of a saint who was a confidante, mother, sister or nurse, providing anything and everything to selflessly help others, even a kidney…
That’s right, even one of her own kidneys.
Upon release Guem-Ja shows another skill, that of being a masturbaker (With a “K” dirty minds!), and she finds employment with a baker, discussing her past with cold clinical displacement and never suggesting anything other than her guilt.
Now this all doesn’t sound too vengeance-ey, but don’t worry it’s coming.
Now free Guem-Ja’s personality changes, where inside prison she was all about helping everyone else, now it becomes all about her. She remains immaculately presented and well dressed, but now her makeup becomes stark and severe, and she is no longer ever-cheerful and smiling but determined and composed. Every action and deed that she performs is done to move her closer to her ultimate goal, every interaction has a reason.
She has a plan, if you’re no use, she has no use for you.
Guem-Ja starts calling in favours from those she shared cells with who have been released, they are uniformly unquestioning in their response, and agree to anything that she demands of them. The wheels are now in motion…
The middle third of the film takes Guem-Ja to Australia and the full scope of her situation and reasons behind her unquestioning silence are revealed.
Guem-Ja only loses composure a couple of times in the film, and only when it seems that she is nearing her goal. At all other times she is calm, poised and focused.
Even when the scope of her plan broadens at one point through unforseen developments Guem-Ja remains at the helm and makes most of the major decisions, as with Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy I guess over a decade of imprisonment allows a lot of time to formulate a plan, a plan that you can get quite attached to.
Speaking of Oldboy the cast of this film contains many Park Chan-Wook regulars from both Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Dae-Su himself Choi Min-Sik playing a pivotal role here.
As you can probably guess through necessity I have left the why, what, who and how’s out of this review as the truth and sheer enormity of the situation will have more impact if you don’t know in advance. If I was to compare the three Vengeance films though I would say this:
In Mr Vengeance everyone contributed to the situation, each found their own measures of vengeance and punishment along the way, and not always fairly.
In Oldboy the reasons driving the vengeance-seeker were vague and forgotten – at least to initially oblivious Oh Dae-Su… and indeed any first time viewer.
But in Lady Vengeance there are sound reasons – known to all parties – and the extent of the actions, and the lengths taken to exact retribution, will be truly abominable to most viewers.
However morally ambiguous you might find the course of events and decisions made leading to the final sequences of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, what can’t be questioned is the efficiency in the storytelling and the uniform quality of the cast in the film.
The Vengeance trilogy stands with The Lord of the Rings as the best triptechs of films made in the last decade, and even though Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the ‘least great’ it would hold up well against most other films in the decade and is indeed worthy of both admiration and time.
Final Rating – 8 / 10. More linear and less convoluted than the first two films in the trilogy, it allows for that by unraveling more slowly and spending more time with the pay-off.