"People make mistakes. If you commit a sin, you have to make atonement for that sin."
Title: Chin-jeol-han Geum-jas-si (친절한 금자씨) ("Kind Geum-Ja")
English title: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Country: South Korea
Length: 112 minutes
Part - Actor
Lee Geum-Ja - Lee Yeong-Ae
Baek - Choi Min-sik
Priest - Kim Byeong-Ok
Detective Choi - Nam Il-Woo
Geun-Shik - Kim Shi-Hoo
Won Mo (adult) - Yu Ji-Tae
"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
The premise behind Sympathy for Lady Vengeance's is very simple. Lee Geum-Ja, wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years for the death of a little boy, is finally released from prison; not so surprisingly, she wants revenge on the man who put her in there. And not just any revenge: she wants justice in true Hammurabi fashion. It is a straightforward film; there are none of the plot twists that are littered through Oldboy nor is there an escalating series of unexpected (and yet, at the same time, expected) tragedies that were in Mr. Vengeance.
But the question is still the same: can you save anyone, even yourself, through vengeance?
The movie can be split into three parts, each centering around a single aspect: suffering (the mechanics behind her plot and her patience); revenge (the actual revenge); and redemption (the messy afterwards). Despite her plans being very straightforward, small and surprising wrenches in the plan change situations abruptly. An idealistic 19 year old coworker falls in love with her on first sight and follows her like a puppy; his scenes with her are both heart-wrenchingly sweet and pathetic, one of the few warm notes to this film:
GEUN-SHIK: I want to start a family while I'm young... but I hope to marry someone I can respect. (pauses, takes a deep breath) So, you did something wrong. You've repented, and now you've vowed never to do it again, right? That's how life goes! Life! It's just another experience. Isn't that right, Geum-ja?
GEUM-JA: (assiduously ignoring him, she continues to read her newspaper) You know, I'm planning to kill someone else.
GEUM-JA: Do you find me sexy?
GEUN-SHIK: Yes!... ah, no... I mean, yes.
Unlike the first two films, there is a "quiet" feeling to this film. While the level of violence is great - if not greater - than the violence portrayed in Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, the director takes his time to examine the intricacies of Geum-Ja's revenge. A large part of this unhurried pace may be attributed to Geum-Ja's situation and attitude: she is not drowning in grief as Park Dong-Jin did when his daughter died (Mr Vengeance), nor is she frenzied by the mystery of why she was imprisoned, unlike Oh Dae-Su (Oldboy). No, she knows exactly who put her in prison and why. What is a few more days after 13 years of planning? Every action she takes, both in and out of prison is deliberate; there is a reason behind even the minutiae, down to even her choice of red eyeshadow for her pale face. She does not keep it secret from her fellow inmates in prison; every woman knows of her Plan, and when the time comes, there is no hesitation on anyone's part. Her former inmates help, partly out of gratitude for the protection she granted while in prison, but also out of fear; behind her back she is called the Witch, for she would smile at her enemies angelically and clean up after them while simultaneously poisoning their dishes.
Still, the cold femme fatale act is merely just that: an act. All the red eyeshadow and black leather trenchcoats in the world can't hide the fact that there is something simmering under the surface of her calm. Others see a sort of wild gentleness; both her daughter Jenny and Geun-Shik see that in her. At other times, a kind of madness burbles up; when her control breaks, she tears things apart with the mindless frenzy and the passion of the mad.
However, one has to wonder... if the makeshift revenge plotted in Mr Vengeance didn't grant anyone salvation, and the dizzying orchestrated masterpiece of revenge in Oldboy didn't grant anyone salvation, who is to say that the "justified" revenge against Baek will grant Geum-Ja salvation?
Park Chan-Wook created the three films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance to be a trilogy about revenge. While all three movies are wholly separate stories, distinct from each other, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance draws on visual cues and substantive points to subtly link the movies to each other:
- Geum-Ja in Lady Vengeance is thrown into jail for the death of a little boy she kidnapped; Shin Ha-kyun in Mr Vengeance kidnaps a little girl for ransom but accidentally causes her death.
- Choi Min-Sik, the protagonist in Oldboy (Oh Dae-Su), returns to plays the antagonist of Lady Vengeance as the thoroughly despicable Baek.
- Yu Ji-Tae, the mastermind Lee Woo-Jin in Oldboy, returns for a cameo in Lady Vengeance.
- Likewise, Song Kang-Ho, who plays the father of the little girl in Mr Vengeance, Park Dong-Jin, also returns for a brief and ironic cameo in Lady Vengeance (and to kidnap someone, no less).
Revenge-wise, the three movies portray three different aspects of revenge. Mr Vengeance's scenes play through in an impromptu and makeshift manner; things happen as they come, without planning or foresight. The revenge is impassioned and without thought, shifting from brother to father to friend to terrorist group. Oldboy's revenge is a dizzying spiral of planning spanning decades, every move and every step predicted, solely performed by a single person. Lady Vengeance portrays the revenge that is orchestrated by one, but requiring the help of many; some might interpret the revenge as to be almost feminine in manner, particularly in the cooperative aspect. Geum-Ja's desire for revenge does not overwhelm her need to "make amends," even in her revenge, there are payments and obligations to be satisfied first.
Stylistically, Lady Vengeance is a black humor film; Park Chan-Wook pushes every scene to both equally bleak and humorous. I can't remember a single scene where I wasn't torn between wanting to laugh, admiring the tragedy, or being horrified. You have to admire the wicked humor behind the end of the world.
In short, it's a fantastic film and I heartily recommend trying it on for size.
Interview at the 2005 New York Film Festival
Warning: Heavy spoilers; don't read unless you've watched the movie already. That said, (1) this is not an exact transcript, and (2) it's only the questions and answers asked at one of the two screenings at the New York Film Festival. However, someone who has already seen the film may enjoy the extra tidbits.
Q: Are there any homages to any other directors in this film?
A: There is only one part of the film that is a deliberate homage to someone else. When Geum-Ja's daughter, Jenny, and Geum-Ja's accomplice are in the back seat of the car, the car makes a turn. There is a shot of the two leaning into the turn; it is a homage to a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. That is the only scene.
Q: Why did you choose to have a revenge trilogy with a woman this time?
A: I had planned to do a movie with Lee Yeong-Ae (actress who plays Lee Geum-Ja) for a very long time, ever since we finished filming Joint Security Area. I also wanted to set this movie apart from the first two, since the first two are with men.
Q: Why the fascination for eating grotesque things?
A: I put that in there? (surprised) Oh! I see. Movies tend to make violence very glorified; I wanted to make it ugly and visceral. In that end, I used the woman who ate her husband and the eating of the squid to portray that.
Q: What is your attitude toward CG?
A: It may not seem obvious from watching the film, but there is a lot of CG in Lady Vengeance, like the camera shots following the wire in the abandoned school. Each movie has a different color scheme; you can say that Mr Vengeance is kind of "cold" and Oldboy, a thriller, is "hot"... this is somewhere in between, I think. That said, I feel that CG is a tool; if I need to use it, I'll use it.
Q: Did you deliberately plan that scene between Geum-Ja and her daughter (with Baek as the translator)?
A: I originally planned to show Baek translating, but decided to leave it out to make it both funny and sad.
Q: How do you plan the camera shots? Do you direct those, or do you let your cinematographer make the calls?
A: Ah... the answer is a bit of both. Before I shoot any movie, I plan the entire storyboard in advance, including camera shots. I do this with my cinematographer; sometimes he will make suggestions and I'll listen. By the time shooting starts, everything is planned in advance already.
Q: How come Geum-Ja does not participate in the revenge against Baek? (Note: I don't remember what the exact question was, but it involved Geum-Ja's role in the revenge)
A: Geum-Ja does not participate in the revenge because she feels that it is not her right to. We designed her coat to have a high collar; it makes her appear to be cut off from the proceedings, more a bystander than a participant. I wanted to show that she deliberately does not want to take part of the revenge.
Q: What is the significance of the Won-Mo and his actions toward Geum-Ja in the bathroom at the end of the film?
A: A few reasons. I wanted to remind the audience the reason why Geum-Ja carries out her revenge; she thinks she is doing it for him. The murder happened such a long time ago... in a sense, Won-Mo is no longer a little boy; he has grown up. I chose the adult actor (Yu Ji-Tae) to play the adult because he was very tall and would tower over her when he stood up. I wanted his actions to show that even though Geum-Ja may think she is doing it for him, he didn't necessarily want her to. I wanted to show her realizing that this revenge is really more for herself than the boy.
Credits to IMDB for some of the actor names.