“Listen carefully. Everyone make mistakes. But if you committed a sin, you have to make an atonement for that sin. Atonement, do you know what that means? Big Atonement for big sins. Small Atonement for small sins.”
Memory can be a cruel mistress sometimes…
Back in late 2007/2008 I was devouring Asian movies. Just like I am now I suppose, but probably because I was so genre-restricted, and because of a few bad choices I kind of allowed things to slip. It was a temporary glitch, and now, refreshed, renewed and inspired I am back with the list that never seems to end.
I mention this because “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” was the last Asian film I seriously remember enjoying, and it was always going to make this list.
However, after watching it again this week, I find myself troubled. We’ll come back to this later.
“Sympathy For Lady Vengeance” (or “Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-Ja” to give it its’ more literal title) is the third in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy. We have already talked about the first (“Sympathy For Mr Vengeance”) and I promise you all that the middle part (“Oldboy”) is going to come later. The films are only connected by the themes of vengeance and revenge, and the way that the path to these are for from redemptive or cathartic. There are a couple of common actors, but these are not common characters (although the main characters from the first film cameo as hired killers in a delicious little touch).
This is the story of Lee Geum-ja (a truly stunning performance by Lee Yeong-Ae, who we met much earlier in her career in “JSA”) who has spent 13½ years in prison for a horrendous crime – the kidnap and murder of a young boy. The nature of her crime, and her youth and beauty had made her something of a national celebrity. However, she may have been young and foolish, but she is innocent (complicit maybe, but innocent). The real perpetrator, a Teacher called Mr Baek (“Oldboy’s” Choi Min-sik), has blackmailed her into taking the blame by threatening to kill her young daughter.
The film can be split into three parts, although there is some overlap. First we see how Guem-ja survived in prison, and how she used her time there to formulate her revenge. The second half is the culmination of the revenge, using the contacts she made in prison (along with the Policeman who never believed she did it, and the wife of Mr Baek) to capture the true killer. At this point she realises that he is actually a serial child murderer, and the nature of her revenge changes. And this brings us to the third part – a quite harrowing section where she gathers together the families of the murdered children and offers them the chance to exact their own revenge on the man (and this echoes one of the true greats of cinema – Fritz Langs’ “M”).
The first part is totally glorious. It is clever, inventive, and colourful. We meet the various characters in the jail, and how Guem-ja befriends or uses them. This is a long term plan in action, and watching the events unfold is quite mesmerising. This is Park at his finest.
The second part is maybe too long – and is spliced with her rediscovering her daughter. After the flash and splendour of the opening 40 minutes, this really bogs the movie down.
Then we reach the third part – which is dark and harrowing. It is actually quite talky, and deals with all those themes that the previous two struggle with – that of revenge, and the effects on those exacting their revenge.
There is a version which slides from colour to b/w – but actually the standard print does this well anyway – I personally view it as unnecessary, but it is an interesting idea.
Now at the beginning, I mentioned my troubles – I have discovered that the film does not reward as well upon repeated viewings. I found the first part less enjoyable and seemed to take up less of the film than I remembered. The middle dragged, and the final part was not as graphic and harrowing as i remember. The film as a whole is easily 20 minutes overlong
It is still superb mind you – but i find it unusual that a film becomes less rewarding over time. I have read criticism that Park lacks heart – that his films are too technical and obsessed with the visual, and this is the first time maybe I find myself agreeing with this.
Highly recommended, but with an air of caution.