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Review © Alex Apple, 2006.

Directed by Park Chan-wook, 2005, 112 minutes, starring Lee Yeong-ae, Choi Min-sik, Kwon Yea-young and Nam Il-woo.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (and let's pretend Tartan haven't dumped the first half of the title in favour of a snappier designation) is the third part of Park's Revenge trilogy and, boy, does it show it. While Sympathy for Mr Vengeance was an eye-opening thriller in which your, um, sympathies for the protagonists shifted with astonishing regularity, leading you to question your own morality in places, and Oldboy was a taut revenge flick with an intriguing premise, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance wants to be arty and worthy, but disappears up its own arse before, ultimately, leaving us with a predictable plot and bollocksy conclusion whilst trying to prove its arthouse credentials.

WARNING: When you're done with this movie, you will never want to hear a piece of baroque music ever again.

Synopsis

Lee Geum-ja has been in prison for thirteen and a half years for the apparently motiveless murder of a young boy, Won-mo, who she was babysitting. In prison she's been the paragon of virtue; converting to Christianity, her saintly piety has inspired many around her. Geum-ja the kind-hearted, they call her. So, when on release she tells the awaiting priest and choir to go screw themselves, the surprise on their faces is palpable.

And so here begins the wafer-thin plot. Geum-ja maintains her innocence, and for the last decade has been hatching a plot to prove it. On release, she enlists the help of various former inmates to find and take revenge on a Mr Baek, the real perpetrator of Won-mo's murder.

Um... and that's it, pretty much. As the film interminably arts and dulls its way towards its pretty inevitable conclusion – can you guess what it is yet? – there's some character development, but precious little in the way of tension, or mystery. Geum-ja has a daughter, Jenny, who's been adopted in Australia but who joins her mother in Korea for a bit after being traced. Finding work at a bakery, Geum-ja virtually throws herself at a junior pastry chef, Geun-shik. Why, we don't know. Blah blah blah blah blah. ;-)

Problem is, as well as this film being virtually plot-free, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is also criminally boring. Director Park tries to fill the void with arty shots, but the fact remains that, as the movie meanders towards its conclusion, there are no sympathies towards anyone (let alone 'Lady Vengeance'), there is no tension, there is no emotional involvement. This movie is just there. Yes, in places it looks nice, but there's nothing meaningful to back it up. In that respect, it's a close cousin to Kim Ki-duk's The Isle, which similarly had a "strong" female protagonist and lots of lovely looking shots, but which revealed itself finally to be equally empty, dull and lacking in worth.

The performance by Lee Young-ae of Geum-ja is clearly meant to be brooding and menacing; it's not. Red eyeliner might make you look badass, but it does not make you be badass, dear. Geum-ja as a character is pretty hollow, vengeance being the whole of her being and even the added dimension of her having a daughter adds little – I guess it's supposed to contrast with Baek's murder of, eventually, four children, and to try to provide a little dramatic tension in a redemptive sort of way, but in reality Jenny is a brutally unsympathetic, sulky teen whose presence in the movie serves to annoy rather than enrich.

Choi Min-sik is fine as Mr Baek, though his talents as witnessed in Oldboy are clearly wasted here; all he has to do for most of the time he's on screen is look vaguely menacing-yet-ordinary. Frankly our postman looks scarier.

If I could be bothered to wade through the 45 minutes of interview footage with Park Chan-wook that's included on Tartan's DVD release of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (note: I couldn't), I could probably explain exactly what the esteemed director was trying to say. Problem is, after sitting through a bum-numbing 115 long minutes of a main feature, watching an interview which isn't dubbed, or subtitled, but which gets round the thorny language issue by Park saying a bit, then a bloke sitting next to him translating it into English, followed by Park saying a bit more, ad nauseam, the interview is so dull I'd much rather be pulling my own teeth out with a clawhammer. So let's hypothesise for a moment.

If Sympathy for Mr Vengeance was a stunning essay on the rights and wrongs on crime to escape from a dire situation, and Oldboy a beautiful, stylish treatise on personal revenge, what is Sympathy for Lady Vengeance all about? Well, frankly, bog all. It's as flimsy as a piece of tracing paper, really only an excuse for the director to come up with some pretty visuals soundtracked by boring, overloud baroque music.

There are nods to the earlier two films – Geum-ja gives up one of her kidneys to help a friend; the detective is the same one as in Mr Vengeance; and Baek's justification of kidnapping is much the same as Cha's in that movie – only while Cha was politically (and, to an extent later on, personally) motivated, Baek is only out for gratification and riches. Perhaps it's money that this movie is about – when the families of Baek's victims are invited by Geum-ja to take their revenge on a captive Baek, it's Geum-ja's promise that their ransoms will be returned that seems to seal the deal. If Mr Vengeance was about ethics, and Oldboy focused on justice, Lady Vengeance deals with the more shallow aspects of crime: questions of morality, dirty money and the iniquities of the criminal justice system.

When all is said and done though, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an emotionally uninvolving movie which, while looking the part, is a huge let-down compared to the two films that came before it. It's an artistic exercise for Park to show off his cinematographic skills - but at the same time he's forgotten to include any plot. The baroque soundtrack is so repetitive it's like listening to someone's mobile phone ringtone over and over and over and over again. The prison scenes try to be gritty but are as unrealistic and glossy as a perfume ad; Geum-ja is shallow and one-dimensional, and Baek is a bit of a cartoon baddie who, underneath his ordinary façade, might as well be wearing a black hat and handlebar 'tache. All in all, very, very poor and majorly disappointing.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 4/10. Gorgeous eye-candy, shame about the plot
Violence: 5/10. Not enough for this kind of movie
Sex: 0/10, unless you get off on lesbian prison sex (and NOT the good kind), in which case 11/10
Delusions of artistic grandeur: 100/10
Review in Latin: Ars(e) Gratia Artis
Overall look: glossy perfume ad. Prison Pour Elle, 150mls EDT, anyone?
Bollocksy Ending: by the time you get there, you've already pulled out your own teeth with a clawhammer
Dullness: on a par with Sorum

Films in a Similar Style: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (much better); Oldboy (better); Sorum (dull, boring, interminable), any arthouse dull-a-thon

*** Pretentious guff ***

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Park Chan-wook
Choi Min-sik
Lee Yeong-ae

Links

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is, at the time of writing (late May 2006) in the throes of a major marketing campaign. Don't be surprised if, a year or so down the line, the official sites have disappeared. Remember, Google is your friend.
http://www.ladyvengeancemovie.com/ - official USA site
http://www.lady-vengeance.com/ - official UK site
http://www.metrofilms.com/ladyvengeance/ - official French site
All three official sites are much of a muchness, offering synopses, profiles, trailers, wallpapers and the like
http://www.geum-ja.co.kr/ - official Korean site (down at time of writing)
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Sympathy_for_Lady_Vengeance.php - Hancinema is the site for background info on Korean movies. As ever, pictures, profiles and news stories.
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/fil...ngeance_dvd_review.htm - DVD Beaver's comparison of two Korean releases of the film, only included here as there's shots of Park's "preferred" version which slowly fades from full colour to black and white, leaving the final half hour totally in monochrome.
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/ladyvengeance/ladyvengeance.html - KFCC do a full review

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