They say revenge is a dish best served cold. Thirteen years is enough time for it to get very chilly indeed. That’s how long Geum-ja Lee (the intoxicatingly beautiful Yeong-ae Lee) has spent in prison for a horrendous crime which she didn’t … or, wait a minute. Did she commit it? It’s not that simple, and neither is anything else in this movie. If you want to find out all the plot details it’s easy enough to do, but you won’t find them here, as I don’t want to spoil the fun of finding them out for yourself. In fact, if you don’t already know the plot, I’d recommend you see this film without learning anything about it … except I will warn you it’s not for the squeamish. The violence is not depicted directly, as in a slasher film, but gruesome things are going on. Suffice it to say that this woman had ample reason to seek revenge, and plenty of time to work out exactly how to do it.
The reason I rented this is that we’ve got two revenge movies coming out very close to each other: Kevin Bacon in Death Sentence opened yesterday (to pretty bad reviews) as I write this, and The Brave One with Jodie Foster opens next week. The early buzz on that one is good, as you’d expect from her. I read an interview with her and she mentioned Lady Vengeance, and the reviews were pretty positive. I admit I was expecting something a lot different than what I got. It was directed by Chan-wook Park, who has a cult following among Asian cinema buffs, and is the third of his “Revenge Trilogy.” I haven’t seen the other two. I expected a lot of fighting and a lot of blood, maybe a female Bruce Lee avenging evil. But things aren’t as black and white in Park’s universe. This is a much more nuanced story. And, totally unexpected by me, it had a lot of very funny moments, at least in the first part, in a very dark way. Geum-ja is never quite what she seems. The last part gets so grim it is hard to watch in places. Some crimes are so awful you can barely stand to see them depicted, even in an indirect way. Again, this guy really needed somebody to take him apart, piece by piece.
Remember Death Wish, back in 1974? A very controversial film. Vigilante justice? Tut-tut, can’t have that, can we? I think it was a pretty good litmus test, myself. If you really, really, really felt that Charles Bronson was a monster, that these people he was killing deserved a “fair trial,” well, your credentials as a liberal were impeccable. Me, I’m liberal in many things, and I believe that certain people should be squashed like bugs, anally raped with nail-studded baseball bats, flayed alive, disemboweled, and their graves pissed upon. Fuck the law, fuck the jury, fuck the appeals courts. Does that make me a bad person? I think most of us are like that, every once in a while, in our blackest heart of hearts. (I also think most of us wouldn’t go through with such things.) But isn’t thinking about it almost like the act itself? If I am wrong, if I am severely misjudging my fellow humans, then I apologize to you all, and I guess I am a bad person. But I don’t think I’m that different from you.
Having said that, I am aware enough to be pretty sure that such acts would not come without consequences. I don’t know if I could get a good night’s sleep if I ever carried out any of my more violent fantasies against people who so richly deserved it. I hope I never have to find out. But this movie is an unflinching, thoughtful examination of the question.
Best of all, the story is told with considerable style and flair. This Park dude has an amazing eye. He’s not quite in Kubrick’s class, but pretty much every shot is beautifully composed and just … right. There are special effects that don’t draw attention to themselves but contribute to the telling of the story. And the story itself is artfully laid out, bounding around in time to the point that it almost becomes confusing, but I was always able to keep up with it. Above all, the story was related with images make me think of Hitchcock, though their styles are very different. What I mean is, nobody was better at telling a story though cutting, camera angles, and the essential artistry of filmmaking than Hitchcock. Park is working in that league. He’s that good.