"In my films, I focus on pain and fear," South Korea's Park Chanwook recently told The New York Times, "the fear just before an act of violence and the pain after." Of course, what we tend to remember are the acts of violence ' the teeth being extracted, one by one, with the claw end of a hammer, for instance. But Park may be on to something. His so-called revenge trilogy, now brought to a rousing conclusion with Lady Vengeance, hasn't just rubbed our noses in Tarantino-style mayhem. It's activated our brains, sensitized us to just how far some people have to go to get even. An eye for an eye? That sounds so reasonable, so biblical. But how do you claim that eye, which is rightfully yours, without also losing your soul?
Maybe Geum-ja Lee (Young-ae Lee), a.k.a. Lady Vengeance, can tell us. For the last 13 years, Geum-ja has been serving a prison sentence for the abduction and murder of a child, a crime she didn't commit, although she aided and abetted the man who did commit it. Yes, she pleaded guilty, but only because her own newborn child was being held hostage. Now, Geum-ja is being set free, and it turns out that the last 13 years, in which she was considered a model prisoner, were part of an elaborate scheme to wreak revenge. She wasn't doing all those favors for her fellow inmates out of the kindness of her heart. She was doing them out of the coldness of her heart. Indebted to her, the newly released prisoners will become the silk in the web she's weaving.
Elaborate schemes require a cool frame of mind, and Geum-ja glides through the movie like an ice queen. (Think Meryl Streep at her chilliest.) And Park glides alongside her. Of the three films ' Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy being the other two ' this is the most elegant, the most baroque, a Jacobean revenge play complete with Vivaldi strings. The opening-credits sequence, in which blood drips beautifully from slits in the screen, suggests that we're closer in spirit to, say, Hamlet than to Kill Bill. But Park doesn't deny himself his Titus Andronicus moments. And the movie's culminating sequence, in which the families of all the children whom the man has kidnapped and murdered get a turn at the faucet, is truly a bloodbath.
By that point, the movie, along with its tightly wound heroine, has spun off into madness, tragedy giving way to comedy as the family members, wrapped in clear-plastic sheets, politely wait their turns, like patients in a doctor's office. A comedy had always been lurking in there somewhere. Suddenly, it's baring its teeth, tragedy having been unable to contain all the emotions that are set into play when vengeance rears its ugly head. Lady Vengeance may not be for everyone. It's violent as hell, even if Park often cuts away from the actual moment of impact. But if you've ever felt your mind slipping off its tracks because somebody did something to you they shouldn't have, this may be just what you need to help you find your moral bearings.