Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lady Vengeance

When it comes to vengeance movies, "Kill Bill" is the most immediate and most "pop" representation. Although, before the first chapter of Tarantino's bloodbath (2003), Chan-wook Park had already began his Revenge Trilogy, releasing "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" in 2002. The second part, "Oldboy", was an instant classic, winning the 2004 Great Prize of the Jury in Cannes. Now, "Lady Vengeance" comes to America, ending the trilogy in grand fashion.
This story is about Geum-ja Lee (Lee Young-ae). She went to prison for 13 years for kidnapping and killing a young boy. Without telling anyone the truth, she knew she was innocent. With her awaited freedom, she can put to work her long-term plan of avenging the real criminal, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi), with a little help from people she met in jail. She gets a job in a bakery of a former volunteer in prison, Mr. Chang, asks Woo So-Young's husband to build her personalized pistol and talks to her case's detective, Choi, (Il-woo Nam) to achieve her dreamed vengeance. Meanwhile, she must find her long-lost daughter in Australia, where she was adopted.
Since Lee spent 13 of her years in a female prison, almost all her acquaintances are women. Many jail companions told her their stories, which are shown with rich details in the movie. These numerous subplots are told in the slow first half of the film, with little impact on the main plot, but, at least, are told with style and sharp black humor. This is the most stylized Vengeance installment, full of colors, surreal effects (which exaggerate only in few scenes) and elegant visual metaphors. For an example, when Geum-ja is described as a "girl whose face is enlightened", director Park literally puts a bright, almost divine light in her expression as she prays at night.
Geum-ja's strong character asked for an even stronger performer, found in Lee Young-ae. From an apparently sweet person in jail to a cold-blooded killer in her revenge path, the beautiful actress plays complex Lady Vengeance with fierce and sensitivity, achieving her climax when she shows a weeping, raging smile. Kim Si-hu is Geun-sik, a young and naïve baker, who achieves a shallow proximity to Lee, and his sweet performance is fundamental in key-scenes. Nam is also great, having a difficult role to play and restraint to keep Detective Choi as little emotional as possible, and Min-sik proves himself as a standard of excellence. In the final third of the movie, 8 new characters appear, almost all gifted to great actors as well.
Director Chan-wook Park is also responsible for many of the movie's assets. His aesthetic vision is wonderful, presenting a beautiful cinematography and some interesting scene compositions. He also imprints an unbelievable amount of pain on the story – helped by the melancholic and sublime score. When Mr. Baek's crimes are unraveled (and shown), the scene is so unbearable that it rivals to the twist in "Oldboy", determining the Revenge Trilogy as a study of how excruciating the bitter truth can be.
"Lady Vengeance" has almost all the assets that represent the Oriental cinema – it only lacks some graphic violence. Even without much blood in its hands, this is a poignant tale of hate, lost innocence, redemption and revenge, and the painful beauty of this work is enough to hypnotize viewers.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

If you've ever been poor if you ever had to work by a dirty machine for minimum wages just to be able to stay alive, you'll appreciate that director Chan-wook Park knows something about the pure desperation such conditions can bring about. And if you've ever lost somebody that you truly loved more than yourself, the most emotional scene in this film will probably make you cry.
Vengeance is one of humanity's more lamentable instincts, and one we'll have to overcome as a species one day. When one acts out of vengeance one seeks only to hurt, and when people start hurting each other because they're hurt themselves, everybody ends up hurting and nobody really gains anything. That's what happens when the main character's lack of one sense drives the film, both form and function wise. Occasionally, we lose one of the two ways in which we interact with the film (sound, sight). The loss of one sense adds value to the other. It makes the normally assumed other seem all the more there. Unlike most Hollywood takes on this particular sense absence, we get a bit of a glimpse into what the absence means to the character, and not just what it means to us looking at the character as third person. What results are some very nice moments that are film using itself as a medium to one of its potentials.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a very original and well-done film. It takes a very common theme(especially for Asian films...) - revenge - and turns it on it's head. Usually in a revenge-style film, there are clear-cut "good guys" and "bad guys". The good guy is wronged and seeks vengeance against the bad buy - end of film. But SYMPATHY is very different, as there are several people wronged in one way or another, and the only clear-cut "bad guys" may be the shady organ dealers (explained below), but are really just bit players in a much larger and more complex picture. SYMPATHY is really a sad film of desperation, and the lengths that individuals may go to for family.
This is the story of Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin). Ryu is both deaf and mute. He has a sister (Ji-Eun Lim) that needs a kidney transplant. Ryu lost his job, therefore he has no money to pay for a legal transplant. So he tries to buy a kidney from the black market, but he is fooled by the smugglers and loses his own kidney and the little amount of money he had. Then his girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi (Donna Bae), gives Ryu the idea to kidnap his former boss', Park Dong- jin (Kang-ho Song), daughter, Yu-sun (Bo-bae Han). What follows then is a series of events, all evolving acts of revenge and violence. Being a part of the 'Vengeance Trilogy', you would expect that the script is about revenge, but the story Park and his crew created is truly amazing. I'm not gonna spoil it here, but the script takes a few terrific, mind-blowing turns. The characters make weird but real decisions, which provokes a chain of events that you won't believe. The dialogs are also quite well written, so is the rest of the movie. There is also quite a nice share of touching scenes, and also lots of violent and bloody ones. In my opinion, the screenplay is for sure the strongest point of 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance'.
The film is comfortably uncertain of its genre and impartial to the characters it follows on such a subjective journey as a mortal vendetta. Think of how contrived it would have to be though, in order to submit to more widely accessible conventions. Watching this film, we realize why it's difficult in some revenge tales to make one character sympathetic and the other rotten to the core. No matter what impression we get of them, there are still certain things that could happen to them that require a kind of justice society is not made to allow. If the film remained purely within the confines of a thriller, it could not have seize and squeeze all the dramatic, comic and voyeuristic possibilities of each scene.