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Special Presentation: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Title aside, there's very little sympathy at play for Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae), the heroine of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance; if anything, the film is fairly resolute in its unwillingness to show revenge as having any kind of cleansing, reaffirming effect. It's just more violence, and ultimately pointless. That the various characters in the film engage in vengeance with varying levels of glee (which we, as an audience, are expected to share to the same varying degrees), is fairly beside the point. Geum-ja never finds her absolution, so neither should we.

This makes for a revenge picture that walks a very fine line, funny in parts, darkly serious in others. There are rape scenes played for laughs (a bulldog-ish female prisoner who forces other inmates to service her orally) and death scenes played for shock (videotaped evidence of kidnap victims' final moments) and everything in between (one unclassifiable sequence where the Bad Guy is shown to be a bad guy because, after finishing his rice, he throws his wife over the table and bangs her hard enough from behind to move all of the dishes from one side of the table to the other). It's actually quite remarkable, because it's been a long time since I've seen a film that's so willing to be so many different things at once, rather than sticking to one easily-identifiable (and thereby digestible) tone. That the various necessary tonal shifts work so well is a great credit to director Park Chan-wook, who is both having fun with the frame of the vengeance picture, and trying to subvert it.

Lee's performance in the lead role is marvellous, and quite affecting; there are two separate, extremely long takes of just her face in the final reel of the picture, where we realize just how far we've come with this character, and how much further she has yet to go. There's also a menagerie of whimsical supporting characters, from a bible-thumping devotee of Geum-ja to a coterie of female inmates, each with their own story to tell. There's a gormless pair of Australian parents and a love-struck busboy. And in the final reel, there's a phalanx of grieving parents, to whom Geum-ja has delivered the ultimate opportunity for revenge... and who must then determine how they're going to go about satisfying it.

Park does wonderful things with his camera, enjoying a painterly approach to the visual style that heightens the fun in some cases, and cranks up the opera in others. This is a very musical picture, with endless concertos and fugues rifling through the soundtrack as Geum-ja undertakes her semi-tragic destiny. It's lovely to look at and sticks with you afterwards, but is most interesting in its willingness to take us all the way down the road to redemption, and then not give it to us. No Sympathy to be had here, but plenty of fun on the way.


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