Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Lee Young Ae, Choi Min-sik, Kim Shi-hu
Synopsis: After being released from prison for a murder she did not commit, “kind-hearted” Lee Geum-ja sets about getting revenge on the man who made her take the fall.
A few weeks ago I was reading an article online about how, in terms of shock value, Korean cinema cannot be beat. I think the article was in response to all the middling reviews the Spike Lee Oldboy remake is getting. For those of you who are unaware, Oldboy is a seriously fucked up yet amazing movie and is the second part of Park Chan-wook’s celebrated vengeance trilogy. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the third film in the trilogy and, although not as cray as Oldboy, it’s definitely the most visually arresting of the three.
Now, as many of you will know, when I get high I like to watch things that are beautiful. Because of this, I feel as though I have a connection with the main character in this film who claims, in a stoic tone, that “everything must be beautiful.” Beauty plays a big part in this movie; think religious iconography meets vivid primary colours. However, as the film progresses and the story becomes more complex, the tones become muted and most of the scenes are heavily shadowed but will occasionally feature something that is pure white, signifying redemption and spiritual purity. In a sense, colour becomes a supporting character and throughout the film it adapts to meet the emotional and spiritual state of the main character. What once started out as a colourful and idealised becomes grim and painfully realistic and emotional.
Aesthetics aside, Sympathy for Lady Vengence has a gripping plot and one hell of a performance is given by Lee Young Ae. For the majority of the movie, she plays her character as aloof and stoic. However, towards the end of the film, when she has to confront that fact that her own desire for revenge may be outweighed by other characters’ need for closure, she gives in to a wave of emotion. In one scene, she looks dead on at the camera and it feels as though the entire spectrum of human emotion is being shown on her face; happiness, anger, frustration, regret, sadness. I’ve never seen any other actress pull off such a range in such a short period of time.
Although this film is beautiful and engaging, like Oldboy it can be very difficult to watch. There are two villains in this movie (one is a child murderer, the other is a rapist) and the audience has to witness their full brutality. On top of that, a puppy gets killed. However, the strange thing about this movie is that, even with all the horror, a strange comedic sentiment is apparent. The movie contains a (thankfully) off-screen torture scene which is easily one of the most absurdly funny things I have ever seen in a film. You essentially have a bunch of middle/upper class Koreans discussing how to be polite when torturing someone and how to avoid getting blood on their suede boots. You have to have a pretty dark sense of humour to make it through this film without getting upset.
In brief, Sympathy for Lady Vengence is a very powerful movie. It inspires strong and visceral emotions from its audience, both positive and negative. In that respect, it certainly adds weight to the argument that Korean movies can’t be beaten when it comes to shock value and raw emotive power.
- Great acting from the female lead who is able to successfully navigate the film’s darker moments just as well as its lighter moments.
- Wonderful use of colour and the cinematography is spellbinding. The attempted assassination scene is my favourite.
- A satisfying, if somewhat ambiguous spiritual ending.
- The torture scene is both hysterical and emotional.
- You will get the munchies so bad in this film. The main character makes the most amazing cakes and I fucking love all kinds of Korean food.
- The scene with the videotapes is traumatising and heart-breaking.
- Puppy murder.
Sympathy for Lady Vengence is not a movie for the faint hearted. Although it’s visually gorgeous and comedic, those moments are juxtaposed with scenes of extreme brutality and horror. However, if you can stomach it, then this movie is unmissable and it’s a great introduction to the vengeance trilogy and Korean cinema in general.