With Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-wook delivers more virtuosic but empty flash. Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) plans to take revenge against the man responsible for the crime that put her in prison, where she served 19 years among an eccentric lot of ladies that included a prostitute, a bank robber, a former spy, and a lesbian with a very hungry vagina. Park claims that he wanted to explore his feminine side with this final installment of his revenge trilogy (which began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued with the successful Oldboy), and he does so by defining Geum-ja by the food she bakes (that she’s able to make deliciously impressive deserts from the scarcest of ingredients indicates that she is a model of efficiency), the mascara on her face, the frilly gun she buys (“Everything should be pretty,” she says), the polka-dot dress she wears into prison that becomes a cultural touchstone, and the “delicate” classical score to which the film’s elaborate revenge scenario is set. Lest we forget, Park lets us know—over and over again—that a woman is a woman, but his “sexy” gender-defining tropes are hardly as offensive as the story’s nihilistic idea of morality, which trades any palatable sense of emotional feeling or sincerity for a sad spectacle of irony, cynicism, and sarcasm (rape, murder, cannibalism, even adoption—it’s all a sick joke to Park). The glossy imagery and pitch-perfect musical compositions position the film as a something of a music box, with Geum-ja as the little ballerina nestled inside and waiting to emerge. It takes talent to evoke this sort of intense visual and aural spectacle, but Park’s tricked-out aesthetic—rife with lousy Fincherian transitions and CGI-cadenced gags—deflects emotion. Insight is as disposable to Park as his characters. Geum-ja’s prison time can be read as an act of martyrdom (the angelic glow around her head in one scene tells us as much), but the story hardly gives it a credible rationale. (Spoilers herein.) If the woman is doing self-imposed time for having given up her daughter for adoption, then spiritual healing is ostensibly on her mind. But why, then, would she so callously burden the parents of the children killed by Teacher Baek (Choi Min-sik) the way she does? The woman’s actions are morally repugnant, and the mechanism by which the second half of the film sets out to satisfy everyone’s bloodlust (including that of the audience) sees very little inquisition. Leaving prison, Geum-ja is confronted with a plate of lily-white tofu—a symbol of a new life without crime—which she fiercely throws to the ground with a gentle thrust of the hand. By film’s end, she’s confronted with another plate of tofu. She eats from it this time, picking at the white mass with her finger before thrusting her entire face into the tofu and devouring it. This scene may dynamically express the woman’s hunger for spiritual succor, but to the end, Park can’t help but turn that need into a joke.
- Park Chan-wook
- Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
- Lee Young-ae, Choi Min-sik, Oh Dal-su, Kim Si-hu, Lee Seung-shin, Kim Bu-sun
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