Vengeance and violence are a seemingly masculine arena cinematically, with narratives propelled by testosterone-fueled actions by those who have suffered injustices. Such passionate reactionary violence is often ascribed to traditional patriarchal roles of ‘the father’ and ‘the lover’, identities which become destabilized through loss and demand retribution. Yet women, who have just as equal a stake in such gendered roles, are often marginalized.
With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) auteur Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) finishes his celebrated Vengeance trilogy in incredible style, featuring a woman as the central protagonist to create an altogether different approach to the concept of revenge. The result is a fascinating and riveting film that depicts a more calculating and intelligent form of vengeance than displayed by Dong-jin in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) or Dae-su in Old Boy (올드보이), constructing a unique and magnificent character in the form of Lady Vengeance herself Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae (이영애).
20 year old Lee Geum-ja is arrested and sentenced for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, shocking the nation due to her tender age as well as for her unparalleled beauty. Yet unknown to the public is that while Geum-ja was an accomplice in the kidnapping, she was forced to take the blame for the murder otherwise her own daughter would be killed by the real criminal – Baek Han-sang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). During her 13 year jail term Geum-ja plots her revenge, forging connections with other prisoners and garnering a reputation for her unbelievable kindness achieved through acts of underhanded treachery. Finally released, Geum-ja begins her preparations in earnest and, joined by her estranged daughter Jenny (Kwon Ye-yeong (권예영), tracks down the man responsible for their separation in order to exact their vengeance.
Park Chan-wook displays a more artistic and surreal depiction of revenge in his third installment, producing stunning imagery of Geum-ja’s quest that emphasizes her beautiful image in conjunction with her lethal internal motivations. Crucially the director never shies away from employing such cinematic playfulness with feminist discourses, overtly conveying Geum-ja’s intelligence in regards to patriarchy and image. Once released from prison Geum-ja purposely applies red eyeshadow and dons dark and seductive clothing, consciously aware that her natural image promotes innocence and purity, features she does not want nor feels she deserves. As such she challenges cultural stereotypes of attraction, subverting patriarchal notions of ‘virginal beauty’ as Geum-ja’s intelligence and violent desires are foregrounded. She is an expert at manipulation in this regard earning the trust and respect of men and women through her subversion of image, allies whom she acknowledges with indifference once they are indebted as her single-minded lust for vengeance is absolute. In achieving revenge Geum-ja is keenly aware of the power necessary, and her methods lead to acquiring a ‘pretty double-phallus’ in the shape of an incredible firearm that is two guns merged into one handle. Park Chan-wook’s wonderful visual style continually yet subtly conveys his lead protagonist as a powerful, intelligent, and highly efficient woman making Geum-ja an acutely compelling character.
That is not to say Geum-ja is lacking in emotion – far from it. She is constantly aware of her role in the murder of a young boy, willing to do anything for forgiveness that can never come. The burden of guilt portrays Geum-ja is a tragically flawed character as she seeks to dehumanize herself and reject intimacy due to her self-hatred. The brilliantly comical reappearance of Geum-ja’s estranged daughter Jenny forms a wonderful partnership in which to explore their neuroses of guilt and abandonment, and the roles of parent and child.
The responsibilities of a parent toward their child are intriguingly explored throughout Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, as Park Chan-wook poses a supremely difficult question – what actions would a parent take if they confronted their child’s murderer? The director expertly conveys the poignant moral conundrum that brilliantly evolves Geum-ja’s personal desire for justice into a communal one, a desire for vengeance that is consciously wrong legally and morally, yet desired all the same. As has become a feature of his, Park Chan-wook depicts such incredibly serious subject matter with a sharply dark-humoured edge that makes the events that unfold all the more captivating, and thrilling, to experience. Despite simultaneously conveying the evolution of revenge as well as narratively veering in an alternate direction, the director never loses focus of Geum-ja’s role as strong methodical woman desperate for retribution and forgiveness, attributes she alone – despite (rejected) offers from patriarchy and religion – must achieve. As such, Geum-ja is one of the most enthralling and compelling representations of women to appear on celluloid.
Lee Young-ae is absolutely superb as Geum-ja, inhabiting the role so completely it is impossible to imagine another actress in her place. The extremely broad range of emotions that are required are wonderfully performed, from moments of quiet manipulation and rage-fueled violence, to tender moments of reconciliation and forgiveness, and fully deserves the various awards for Best Actress bestowed upon her. Choi Min-sik is given a marginal role as the malicious Baek Han-sang, yet during his short screen-time he conveys the depravity, and the sheer terror, required. Other supporting performances are generally fleeting, however it is highly enjoyable when cameo roles featuring actors from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy appear.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an incredible final installment to the Vengeance trilogy, presenting an entirely different notion of revenge through one of the most compelling female protagonists in cinematic history. Park Chan-wook’s beautifully creative vision, as well as Lee Young-ae’s captivating performance, make Sympathy for Lady Vengeance an enthralling exploration of vengeance and feminism that demands repeated viewing.