Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Y’know, people accuse us of herdthink sometimes here at AICN. When that happens, I just laugh because if they paid attention and really understood how often Harry and I or Harry and Quint or Quint and I or whoever all rabidly disagree about movies, they’d drop it. That’s one of the reasons I love Harry and Quint as movie buddies... because when we argue about stuff, we can really dig in and explain why we feel the way we do to each other. Hell, I think MiraJeff is out of his fucking mind picking CRASH as the best film of the year, but I can respect that he had a very different experience than I did with it.
Chan Wook Park may be vaguely beloved around here, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s going to give every film of his an automatic pass. I thought LADY VENGEANCE was two very different films jammed into one, and I’m still trying to digest it so I can write about it. Cbabbitt decided to write up his reaction to the film, and it’s not what you’d expect from one of the AICN regulars. Check this out:
The emotional weight of certain thematic content varies depending on what that content entails, and how effectively it’s explored within a narrative. Thematic power can be exceptionally intense when structured around a concise story, or it can be lost due to an incomprehensible narrative. Revenge is an undeniably forceful and dynamic theme when intellectually explored to its fullest capacity. Countless filmmakers have attempted to examine revenge in an almost infinite amount of movies. Some touch upon the deep sadness and moral dilemma with dramatic precision, and some simply use revenge as a tool for excitement. Both instances are admittedly appealing when forged with a passion for either dramatic importance or simplistic entertainment. The lightest take on revenge can be just as enjoyable as the deepest, darkest examples of the genre. And while a stirring descent into the perplexing nature of revenge may be the most shocking, who’s to say Fist of the White Lotus or Baby Cart at the River Styx is insignificant? Movies are meant to entertain, no matter how dark and disturbing they become. Munich is perhaps the best recent example of the inescapable morality and fatal ramifications of such a theme, yet it still entertains as a movie. This concept is something that has eluded American film for a considerable amount of time, and been so successfully realized in Asian film, most notably in Japan and Korea. And in Korea, everyone’s favorite new wonder has been releasing the purest examples of how methodical, conflicting, engaging, and thrilling the genre can be. Chan Wook Park is definitely a talent. His vision is clear and succinct, his style unique and affecting. He is one of the most promising and fascinating filmmakers working today. His first foray into the genre resulted in the mesmerizing Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a movie that opened South Korean film to a wider audience. His follow-up, Oldboy, eviscerated the daunting task of improving on the first, while being a much different and visceral experience. The two films are completely different, but certainly build a thematic arc that was yet to be completed. Now, with Lady Vengeance, the third act has arrived, completing an exhausting trilogy of cinematic brutality and conceptual significance. Sympathy and Oldboy are tremendous. Chan Wook Park is gifted. Lady Vengeance is an eagerly awaited conclusion. So, have people suddenly forgotten that initial success doesn’t automatically result in triumphant returns?
Lady Vengeance struggles to be considered "passable".
And yes, it looks great, it’s well acted, it’s professionally done. Sure, sure. Let’s get over the pretentious notion that a well-made movie should be considered a success. Lady Vengeance is deeply flawed, especially in its muddled first half and disappointingly in its ultimate aim. For a filmmaker who’s proven to be so focused and confident, Lady Vengeance is an absolute mess. What did the empathetic, deliberately ponderous nature of Sympathy For Mr.Vengeance and the energized, riveting charge of bloodshed of Oldboy add up to? Nothing. A movie that attempts both and winds up empty-handed. What happened to the clear vision of delivering a clean narrative for the upmost thematic potency? Lost completely in a jumbled rush of a screenplay that loses just about all accounts of cohesive plotting. Lady Vengeance is surprisingly uneven, feeling more like his debut venture into the genre rather than his final opus. It would make perfect sense if this preceded Sympathy and Oldboy. That would make his vengeance trilogy one of the greatest examples of a consistently improving accomplishment. In the end, it’s more reminiscent of the Godfather trilogy. A sensational rise followed by a magnificent fall. And like Godfather III, Lady Vengeance is certainly filled with moments of glory amidst a thunderous dud. In fact, Lady Vengeance has a prolonged section of genius that almost deceivingly persuades you into forgiving its flaws. However, a sequence of brilliance doesn’t make a movie, especially when it’s following a complete tonal shift in the story, which means it really wasn’t necessary for anything prior to it to occur.
Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Le) is released from prison at the outset of the film. We discover she had been sentenced for many years for the kidnapping and death of a five year-old boy. This is, of course, not the entire truth to the situation. She settles back into a regular lifestyle baking and fixing cakes at a small bakery. And, because the movie is called Lady Vengeance, we know and quickly find out that she’s devised an intricate plan to kill the person that imprisoned her (Min-sik Choi of Oldboy). The back-story is rather simple, but told in a complex fashion for no other purpose than to distract you from how inconsequential it actually is. As the movie continues, Chan Wook Park carefully reveals details about her past, mostly on her life in prison and how each person she meets will play out an important role in aiding with her quest of vengeance. We also find about the incident that locked away, stripped her of a pleasant life, and fueled her passion for blood. All of this is intercut with her planning out the attack on her former teacher, Mr. Baek (Choi). Along the way Chan Wook Park presents tasteful cameos from practically every star of his previous “vengeance” movies. Geum-ja meets several different characters in prison, all of whom we get subplots for. The first half is basically subplot layered upon subplot, over and over again. It’s not terribly interesting, and it overwhelms the main character and her journey. Not that she has much of a journey. Lady Vengeance herself is dull. Her carefully devised plan is surprisingly inept and nonsensical. The movie spends so much time with the details that it loses its punch. The subplots don’t explore the theme in any way. They simply pass time until the movie gets to the supposed meat. Her motives for revenge are given little depth or emotion. She was manipulated and confused, and imprisoned because of it. Her confinement and anguish is magnified by her separation from her daughter. Her reunion with her child is perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the movie. It’s utterly worthless. It’s supposed to deepen the emotion of the character and affect her lust of vengeance, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because the revenge itself is basically a small movie of its own, with little to nothing involving the characters previously set-up. So, we’re stuck with this side-story about her daughter that slows everything down to a halt. And the English-speaking sequences - not so good.
Interest is low by the time the actual vengeance occurs, so it is impressive that Chan Wook-Park creates an entirely compelling and provocative segment of film so late in the story. As previously stated, this section is a complete shift in the story, and debunks everything that came before it. Lady Vengeance comes across disturbing information about her target, and changes her plans of personal satisfaction right before killing him. Mr. Baek has been killing quite a few children in the time of her imprisonment, so she decides to contact all of their grieving parents to gather for a meeting of justice. This leads to arguably the most shocking, original, and unsettling sequence of torture and carnage put on film in quite a while. It’s startling. The sequence is long, brutal, and thought-provoking, and acts as a perfect examination of the theme he’s so fascinated by. The sequence forces you to question what’s happening, and look inwards on how you might react if placed in that situation. It’s the essence of the movie, and it would be dishonest to deny its impact. The climactic sequence is maybe the single best piece of filmmaking in the entire trilogy. It’s brilliant. But, as innovative and engaging as it is, it doesn’t save a thoroughly problematic whole. The movie still doesn’t add up to anything. It’s still an empty experience, no matter how great certain moments happen to be.
Lady Vengeance is a momentous disappointment.