Until you’ve seen a Park Chan-wook film, you’ve never been gruelled. Not even slightly. You may think that other films are raw or powerful or harsh, but other film-makers are novices compared to Master Park. And although Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is visually beautiful, you’ll still be in for a good gruelling.
That said, I’d have to say that this is the gentlest of the Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Old Boy being parts one and two respectively). Perhaps that’s because this is an illustration of the old saying, “Vengeance is a dish that’s best served cold”. Thirteen and a half years cold. And where the first two films focused on either impassioned revenge from the throes of grief, or dedicated revenge based on long years of implacable and growing hatred, this one follows Geum-jae as she calmly enacts her plan, concocted with care in prison.
We get the first hint that ‘Kindly Miss Geum-jae’ is not so kindly in the opening scene, when Geum-jae is released from prison. A church chorus, led by the disturbing Kim Byeong-ok (who played Mr Han in Old Boy), welcomes her with a rousing hymn and the traditional gift of white tofu. She responds to the astonished preacher with a deadpan stare and a comment of “Why don’t you go screw yourself”.
Like Old Boy, this one makes lavish use of colour. Geum-jae’s new abode is a nook under the stairs with a zebra-striped red and black colour scheme, ideally suited to the shrine to vengeance it becomes. Her new workplace, a patisserie, glows with warm gold, suggesting food and love and comfort. An abandoned school, site of the original crime and the ensuing vengeance, crumbles grey and dank and lifeless.
Once again, Park’s visual compositions are superb. A Seoul alleyway, bordered by high stone walls, turned at night into a shadowy pit. A row of bereaved family members, decked out in plastic raincoats, sitting on a bench waiting their turn to wield their assorted carpentry tools on the killer. A row of metal sculptures, almost identical, of a woman holding aloft a man’s severed head.
For all that the Vengeance trilogy supposedly began as an offhand comment by Park, there is a real evolution here. In Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, the tragedy is driven by a society that cares for money more than people. In Old Boy, it’s a chance comment and a forbidden liaison. In Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, we’re faced with deliberate human malice and greed.
This, of course, makes the villain impossible to like. But that’s the way it should be, because here Park focuses on the effect of long-anticipated vengeance on the one taking revenge. A likeable villain would only muddy the waters. And, as in all of Park’s other films, things never work out the way we plan.