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—Geum-ja's (played by Yeong-ae Lee) words to her young daughter Jenny serve as an emotional lesson in morality from Chan-wook Park's 2005 Lady Vengeance.
Following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003), Korean New Wave director Chan-wook Park's unintended Vengeance Trilogy ends with a breathtaking and devastating bang. Lady Vengeance (literally translated from Korean "Kind-hearted Miss Geum-ja") follows Geum-ja, a woman in her mid-30s newly released from 13 years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a boy. A preacher and a group of Christians dressed as Santa Claus await her release with the singing of hymns. When she coldly approaches, the preacher offers her a large block of white tofu. "It's tradition to eat tofu on release," he tells her, "so that you'll live white and never sin again." Geum-ja's voice-over interrupts, narrating her story over a flashback to her early prison days. She explains how the angel that resides in her is invoked through her prayers. She has become a person of faith—a convert. Back with the preacher and his tofu, Geum-ja stares blankly into his eyes. The choir watches in suspense as she slowly reaches up and casually flips the plate over onto the ground. Everyone stands frozen in surprise as they are introduced to Geum-ja—the angel of death.
What has become a hallmark of Park's style during the Vengeance Trilogy is his ability to carry a story visually. Lady Vengeance feels very much like a graphic novel. Indeed, it's Park's use of both compelling and peculiar frame composition and camera angles that constantly maintains our interest. Park never uses the same shot twice, constantly moving the audience to a new and creative perspective. This is never for the sake of vanity however, as the film stays taut and focused. Park sweeps through the film, filling the frame with such detail and emotion that even brief shots convey valuable information. And he moves at such breakneck speed that any more or less information would leave us either confused or overwhelmed. Instead, the pace is perfect, always stopping in time to give the necessary breaths. And because Park's hold of the narrative is so focused and clear, both the delay and deluge of detail serve their full potentials. The transitions and choreography give the film a wonderful fluidity even while jumping back and forth between past and present. With such masterful coordination and delightful precision of color, music, camera movement, editing, acting, and voice-over, Lady Vengeance feels like a well-rehearsed ballet. A tightrope act enacted with exact precision.
The color of the film, powerful both visually and thematically, plays a heavily representative role. Park utilizes white and black in both costuming and art design to represent purity and guilt, respectively. The color red boldly lines the eyes of Geum-ja symbolizing her state of vengeance. American audiences were first and mostly treated to a secondary, more consistent cut in terms of the film's color. The infamous Fade to Black and White version, found only on the Vengeance Trilogy box set, moves from its warm, vibrant color scheme and slowly transitions to an eventually de-saturated black and white ending. Even in the fully colored version though, there is a stark change in temperature, lighting, and set design as the film gets colder the closer Geum-ja gets to her revenge.
Lady Vengeanceis more than just a visual spectacle however. During the first half of the film, the premise (about a woman who, after being falsely accused and imprisoned, seeks revenge on the one who put her there) feels very similar to 2003's Oldboy. As Geum-ja gathers her past cellmates, the plan for revenge begins to slowly unfold. In the second half of the film however, Park takes a rather surprising turn as he moves from a melodically, surrealistic tone to an unflinchingly gritty reality. When the drama's villain (played by Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) is finally revealed, we are shown his unbearable crimes.The experience is disturbing yet necessary as it engenders empathy for those wronged now seeking revenge.Park pushes us to catharsis, to feel the same desire for justice, and to answer the same moral dilemma his characters face.
It is fitting then that the last of the Vengeance Trilogy would carry the most devastating impact. The film wrestles with the difference between justice and revenge, but perhaps more importantly it is tethered to the concept of universal morality. The theme of atonement, which is introduced early and runs throughout, is unique to Lady Vengeance. Geum-ja's quest for revenge is ultimately rooted in her desire for redemption and atonement. Park's interweaving of the two matters (revenge and redemption) explores the core similarity between the two: namely, righting past wrongs. But for Geum-ja, it is more than an issue of justice; it is the overwhelming feeling of guilt and desire for purity that drives her to the end of the film and beyond. And just as revenge can never truly satisfy the avenger, Geum-ja's true desire for innocence regained may never be fulfilled.