The finale of Park Chan-wook’s “vengeance” trilogy completes the series which began with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and went on to “Old Boy” (2003), the latter of which made a considerable splash on these shores. There are a great many bizarrely amusing moments in “Lady Vengeance,” and the film exhibits an elegant craftsmanship that’s consistently eye-catching. Unfortunately, the fragmentary narrative style and a distasteful final act leave it another near-miss.
Though the flashy technique and flashback-loving editing camouflage the fact, the story is actually quite a simple one. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is convicted when only nineteen of killing a six-year old boy, and sentenced to prison, where she befriends a whole series of inmates and wreaks vengeance on one of them, “The Witch” (Kho Soo-hee), who brutalizes the others. Released after serving nineteen years, she plots to destroy the actual murderer, the teacher Baek (Choi Min-sik), who forced her to confess to the crime by threatening her newborn. Taking a job in a bakery, she enlists the aid not only of her fellow ex-cons but also of the police detective (Nam Il-woo) who was never convinced of her guilt to find the villain and arrange a poetically just judgment for him. She also finds time to seek a measure of personal redemption by apologizing to the parents of the boy she was supposed to have killed (and having to suffer a serious penance as a result), and bonding with her thirteen-year old daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), who was adopted by a peculiar Australian couple but wants to return with her to Korea.
This all seems pretty cut and dried, but rest assured that the director doles out the narrative with all sorts of fractures and flourishes, beginning with a grimly humorous sequence showing Geum-ja’s release from prison–when she’s greeted by a weird preacher (Kim Byeong-ok) and a chorus of his followers dressed in Santa Clause outfits and presented with a tofu wedge she’s supposed to eat from to purify her spirit (despite her “kindly” reputation as an inmate, she dismisses the greeters and tosses the tofu away) and continuing through a series of wildly extravagant scenes alternating between her post-prison life and recollections of her jail time. The director seems to rejoice in shooting the individual sequences to emphasize their odd and morbid sides, and the juxtapositions seem arranged to maximize the viewer’s sense of dislocation. When the final act of “vengeance” rolls around, though, it’s gruesomeness that dominates even if much of the actual violence is played off-screen. The disposal of Baek–who, as it turns out, is a prolific serial killer–plays out like a variant of “Murder on the Orient Express,” though with a good deal more unsavory detail. (His brutalization of his young victims before killing them is portrayed in a fashion that may turn a few stomachs. And from the perspective of credibility it’s more than a little curious that bereaved relatives should be willing to deal with Geum-ja, whose silence, after all, permitted him to continue operating while she was incarcerated. And when the motive for the murders is revealed, it’s almost laughably inadequate.)
But aficionados of Park’s characteristically bravura work are unlikely to be seriously disturbed by either the flamboyant style or the level of mayhem. For them “Lady Vengeance” will be a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, with its in-your-face slickness compensating for any structural or logical failings. It’s really the technical side of things that’s most impressive here, with Chung Chung-hoon’s lustrous widescreen cinematography and the sharp editing by Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum standing out among the behind-the-scenes credits. For the most part the actors fit in nicely with Park’s rather lurid approach, most (like Kho and Kwon) playing to the rafters but others (like Nam) calm and placid as counterpoint. Choi’s portrait of banal, unmitigated evil is particularly unnerving. But Lee, it must be said, at times seems a bit lightweight for a part that dominates every part of the proceedings.
So the already converted will undoubtedly embrace “Lady Vengeance” as a satisfying closer to Park’s trilogy. But it’s unlikely to convince doubters any more than the earlier installments did.