Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Be White. Live White. Like This.

My lord that sounds racist, doesn't it?

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is the last part of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, after Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Oldboy. To get down to brass tacks, it's my least favourite of the three. There, I said it. It's still pretty good though.

After the male protagonists of the first two, Lady Vengeance follows a woman for the first time. Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) has just been released from prison after being sentenced to fifteen years for the abduction and murder of a young child - which she didn't do. The real killer, Mr Baek, forced her to confess on the threat that he would kill her young daughter if she didn't. Whilst in prison, Geum-ja was the model prisoner, helping others in need, donating kidneys - the normal. While she wasn't all goodness and light (she poisoned and killed a fellow inmate who was torturing another, all the while pretending to help her), she was owed many a favour by her ex fellow convicts, which she calls in following her release.

Geum-ja's persona has completely changed post her release. Where she was all sweetness and light inside, she is cold and vicious outside, relentless in her search first for her daughter (who was adopted by an Australian couple living in the outback - and how strange it was to see Tony Barry suddenly pop up unexpectedly in a Korean thriller) and then for revenge on Mr Baek. Mr Baek is now married to another ex-con who owes a favour to Geum-ja, and it is her assistance that allows our villainous hero to capture the killer. In doing so, she discovers that he has killed more than just the one she took responsibility for.

With the help of the detective who was looking after the case, she gathers up the rest of the relatives and gives them a couple of options regarding his fate. Let it just be said that what follows is particularly disturbing.

Where Mr Vengeance was gritty and real, obviously the first of an acclaimed series, probably without the money or the gravitas of uber-respect behind Chan-wook, and Oldboy was glossy but still very real, Lady Vengeance felt it had gone too far towards that Hollywood slick look, and it really detracted from my experience. From the opening credits (which looked a lot like the advertising going around for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, don't you think?) you could see that it was deliberately targeting a far bigger audience, and from then on in it felt altogether safer than the previous two entries. The little Australian segment didn't work for me (maybe because I'm Australian - I honestly do not believe for a second that a Korean girl would be adopted into a farming family. My extended family on one side is all farming, and I simply struggle to see it), amongst other things. Yeong-ae was fine in the role, but I also don't think she hit the highs of the previous leads. Chan-wook and Yeong-ae seem to have decided on a hammed up take on her character in prison, which leads to a lack of real belief in her on release. Her character also didn't have any real highs or lows in the outside world. She just wafted through with a stern look on her face until right at the end.

The film did look pretty, again shot by Chung Chung-hoon, but I don't think it suited this time. Maybe something a little dirtier, a little more hand-held and immediate would have loosened it all up a little and left it in the realm of possibility. As it is, though, it felt quite abstracted.

This kind of sounds like a negative review, but it was a good film, believe me. It's just, compared to the previous two entries in the trilogy, it pales. Not enough to stop me looking forward to getting a chance to see Chan-wook's latest Thirst, however.

3.5 stars. Writing this I've oscillated between 3 and 3.5, but my memories of the ending involving the families of the dead children and Mr Baek tipped me towards the higher. It really is quite an affecting scene.

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