Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Lee Young-ae
Country: South Korea
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but what are the consequences of taking that revenge and who has the right to do it? On the surface, Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance - the final chapter in his revenge trilogy, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Old Boy - is a pretty simple thriller. An artful one, to be certain, but one that doesn't quite reach the highs of Park's masterful Old Boy. It's on reflection, in the wake of the tenacious hold that the film maintains on you, that its power really begins to reveal itself. Lady Vengeance is a thriller - a bloody, sometimes horrific one - but it's one that contains at its core a complex meditation on the nature of revenge, guilt, grief, and redemption, as well as a fascinating central character. The style may be the first thing that strikes you, but it's the story and the character that will resonate.
The revenge in Lady Vengeance is 13 years in the making, plotted by Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) while she serves a prison sentence and against Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), the man responsible for her being there. Years prior, when Geum-ja was a pregnant teenager, Mr. Baek took her under his wing, eventually getting her to assist him in abducting a five-year-old boy, telling her that he would be ransomed and returned to his parents. Instead, Mr. Baek murdered the boy and then kidnapped Geum-ja's baby daughter, using the threat of killing her, too, to force Geum-ja to take the fall for the crime. While in prison, Geum-ja planned her revenge, gaining allies on the inside who will each play a role in bringing her plan to fruition, and cultivating a new image for herself as one who has seen the light and reformed. She becomes known as the "Kind-Hearted Geum-ja" and earns an early release from her sentence, but she's barely out of the prison gates before she reveals that her time in prison has only made her more bitter and angry and she wastes no time in putting her plan into motion. Despite a few bumps along the way - including the severing and re-attachment of a finger, a reunion with her daughter, who has been adopted and is being raised in Australia, an affair with a young man who is the age that the murder victim would now be, had he lived, and an assassination attempt - Geum-ja eventually succeeds and gets Mr. Baek exactly where she wants him. It's only then that she realizes that she's merely a small part of a much bigger story and that vengeance might not be hers to take.
Revenge is the engine that drives the film, but Park refuses to frame it as a simple quid pro quo where Mr. Baek does wrong by Geum-ja and she in turn pays him back for it. For one thing, Geum-ja does not come into the story with clean hands, her willingness to participate in one terrible crime (the kidnapping of the boy) making her the perfect patsy for an even more terrible crime (the murder). She's a victim of Mr. Baek's machinations, but she's only a victim in a way, and in the grand scheme of things she's far, far down on the list of people who have been most harmed by Mr. Baek. Part of her is aware of this - she loses a finger by cutting it off in an attempt to show the murder victim's parents how sorry she is - but the greater part of her is powered by selfishness and the inability to see beyond her own relationship to Mr. Baek. The self-mutilation that forms her act of contrition is inherently selfish, a means of demanding (by threatening to continue cutting off fingers) forgiveness from the parents, traumatizing them anew in her pursuit of what she wants. She participated in the abduction in the first place out of self-interest and then kept quiet about Mr. Baek's involvement in order to protect her daughter, leaving more children vulnerable to being victimized by him. In other words, while she did sacrifice her freedom in order to save her daughter, she also (albeit inadvertently) sacrificed the lives of four more children to protect what was hers. Her culpability in all that Mr. Baek has been able to do, and her realization of her role as she begins to see the forest rather than just the trees, is what turns Lady Vengeance from a straightforward revenge thriller into something more, something deeper.
Her realization doesn't eliminate her desire to see Mr. Baek pay, but it changes the context of it. Up until then, it has been all about her, about what she has endured, about her finally being in a position to make him pay. When she discovers - in a brilliantly unfolded moment where she finds out that Mr. Baek kept the marble that belonged to the boy she helped him kidnap and then, on seeing the other trinkets that he has, puts the pieces together and realizes that he has a ghastly collection of mementos - that there are victims she didn't know about, she finally realizes that the revenge isn't hers to take. The opportunity for revenge belongs to the families of the children that Mr. Baek has murdered, whom she gathers together so that they can decide whether his fate will be an arrest and trial or a slow and brutal execution carried out by the families. Even here, Park doesn't make it simple, having the families debate whether they should kill Mr. Baek themselves, acknowledging that killing him won't bring any of the children back or undo any of the damage that followed their deaths, but also wondering whether they could endure the long trials that would be to come if he were to be arrested. Then, when all is said and done, they address the issue of the money that was paid to Mr. Baek in ransom - that, at least, they can get back.
In addition to the skillful way that it unfolds Geum-ja's elaborate plot that involves multiple moving pieces (which in turn allows the film to flash backwards and forwards, emphasizing the duality of Geum-ja as a character), what holds Lady Vengeance so firmly together is its development of Geum-ja, turning her into a complex and fascinating figure, rather than just an angry woman out to even the score. She's not the "Kind-Hearted Geum-ja" she played at being in prison (where she was alternately, and affectionately, known as "the Witch" for being the most powerful person among the prisoners). She's manipulative, capable of both casual and active cruelty, and even if she doesn't directly kill Mr. Baek, she does kill a few other people through the course of her 13 year journey, and it's the threat of being visited by her again that will keep the families from going to the police about what they've done to Mr. Baek. Yet, she's not evil, either. She came under Mr. Baek's power when she was a pregnant teenager with nowhere else to go and he subsequently used her love for her daughter against her to make her do her bidding. If she's aloof and detached for much of the film, it's because she's learned that feel something for someone is to make yourself a target, and her lust for violence masks her genuine feelings of love for her daughter and remorse for the boy that was murdered. The thought of revenge is what propels her forward, but it's redemption that she's really after and that's what will remain just out of her reach, denied to her even after all is said and done by the spirit of the boy. She's too corrupted; it's only through her daughter that she can be redeemed, through allowing her to live a better life as a better person. "Be White. Live White," she tells her in the film's hushed final moments. Lady Vengeance starts out as an intimate revenge tale, but by the end it's a tragedy on an almost operatic scale.