When Park Chan-wook announced that he planned to make a film trilogy studying the theme of human psychology and the act of revenge, few had much hope after the first installment. A twisted little movie called SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE. The film was oddly comical for such a sinister topic of body organ theft/kidnapping/accidental child murder/H addiction and love. Despite the originality and exceptional acting, the movie didn’t really quite work. However when the impossibly cute filmmaker released OLDBOY upon us, it was a cinematic revelation for me. I remember thinking I had not felt such a movie buzz since David Lynch saturated my mind with BLUE VELVET. It is that good and disturbing. Dark and drenched in metaphor — the complex story takes the audience on a psychological and horrific rollercoaster ride that is impossible to forget. It also finally brought much deserved attention to the talents of Choi Min-Sik. Now, Hollywood is readying a “re-make” for US audiences too lazy to deal with subtitles or too culturally-stunted to allow themselves to be challenged on a level that few US filmmakers try to challenge. I am dreading this remake, but I will see it. And, if nothing else, it just might make a few people decide to check out the original masterwork from which Hollywood has watered down.

At any rate, I am not sure why it has taken me so long but I’ve had a copy of Chan-wook’s final third of the trilogy on DVD for some time now. I am not sure how I secured it. I was so excited at the time it arrived but I had already heard it was not up to par with OLDBOY. So, I think I avoided looking at it. Well, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE will be opening in US/UK cinemas over the course of the next several weeks and, if you look, you can even find DVD already available out there (just be sure you get one with English subtitles)

I finally watched it. While certainly not of the same power or cinematic genius of OLDBOY, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE does not let the audience down the way the first of the trilogy did. In fact, this is a great film!

To step away from my topic for a few sentences. I’ve fallen in love with Asian cinema. If you’ve ever read my blog you know this. I am particularly fond of Japanese and Koren film. As a westerner and the quite possibly the whitest gay guy on the planet, I find film from Japan and Korea to be so interesting. All countries have complex, disturbing, sordid histories. All of them. All of us. However, Japan has more than its share of fucked up karma. And, poor Korea has suffered a great deal. And, there have been so many advancements/changes on the cultural, sociological and political fronts for these two countries in the past 30 years — the art that results is soooooooo odd. Japanese film is so totally fucked-up you can never be quite sure of what you might see. Miike Takashi, anyone? And, on top of that — the pure artistry is often hard to beat. The craftmanship that goes into many of the film productions is almost flawless. And, it all created for half the money and in half the time as what is created by film industries in the West.

But, then we have Korean cinema. Very close to the art of the Japan masters but without the pretention that one often finds. Korean cinema is more focused on pure entertainment value. And, this is what makes it all the more interesting. Everything about a typical Korean film is just so slightly off-center that Western Eyes are left blurry with confusion and conflict.

“Is it OK that I just laughed at that?”
“is it wrong that I just found that romantic?’
“Can I send a legion of therapists to Korea? ASAP!?!?”

A recent big hit “romantic comedy” was released. I am sorry. The title escapes me at the moment. However, the story follows the “cute and sexy” love story which stars a hot Korean pop star singing sensation and Yeom Jeong-A! Now, this movie did big business in the Korean market. …I have not yet seen it, but I am familiar with the plot. Drunk boy meets cute girl. Drunk boy date rapes cute girl. Cute girl falls in love with her cute rapist — oh, and becomes an alcoholic. Drunk girl tracks down drunk boy and true love awaits along with lovely pop songs. The end! Fucked up much?

Now, Yeom Jeong-A …is a great comic actress. I guess the best analogy one could make would be a Korean Meg Ryan about 20 years younger and more gifted as an actress. She was also in the way-creepy horror film, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS! She is a big deal in Korea. She can sing. She can do great slapstick comedy. And, she can break your heart with a glance. And, she is fearless in terms of what she will tackle as an actress. My personal fave Yeom movie is LOVELY RIVALS. …a big hit romantic comedy that follows the plight of a spinster school teacher (she is 30 and not married!) and her 10 year old cute student — and the fact that they both have crushes on the new hot 4th grade male teacher. …who, tho not really revealed in the film itself is quite possibly a gay boy. Anyway, the film manages to plug in ample uncomfortable doses of chemical dependency, child abandonment, child abuse, inappropriate teacher/student relationships, sexualization of a child and the whole odd idea that none of this prevents the film from being a heartwarming “family” comedy. ?????? Gotta love it. Right?

Now, I had read that Park was in talks to cast Ms. Yeom as the lead in SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE. I am not sure if this is true, but it didn’t happen. And, that is too bad because I kept thinking how good she would have been as the Lady.
Damn! She would have rocked!

OK — there are some spoilers here. So, just stop reading if you plan on seeing the film. Be warned.

SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE is a very dark comedy about a young woman wrongly imprisoned for the brutal murder of a little boy. While in prison she cleverly lines up “friends” to help her extract vacancy on the true child killer, played by Chen-wook’s fave actor, Choi Min-Sik. The violence is beyond graphic. And, be prepared to squirm during some truly horrific and sad moments when grieving parents elect to watch videos of their children being murdered by Min-Sik. …and, then, one-by-one each parent is given the opportunity to torture the sick man who took the life of their child. Typical turn of a Korean film — the dark comedy goes all horrific and tragic on our ass without much warning. But, this is part of the power of the film. And, part of Chan-wook’s challenge.

“Is this OK?” ….would you be able or want to personally torture the man who tortured and murdered your innocent child? And, how comfortable are you as a viewer in being entertained by a film that takes such a turn? Do you feel guilty for enjoying the film? Are your liberal views on the death penalty shaken? Is there something more pathetic about the grief-stricken parents harming the obviously sick killer or is it justice? And, what to make of Lady Vengance? Chan-wook NEVER flinches or allows the audience to forget that our “hero” — while not the killer of the child — did have a hand in the killing of the child. …and, has killed while in prison. …and, thinks little of putting her own child in harm’s way to carry out her desire to seek out vengeance. Do you cheer her on? Do you pity her? Is she just as bad as the child killer himself?

I am dying to see how any one of my friends unfamiliar with Korean culture would respond when Lady vengeance trains herself to shoot her gun by picking up one of those cute little dogs that are a delicacy in Korea — and then holds the cute little thing up with the gun aimed at it’s head. Boom!

Personally, I was saddened by the film. And, I think this might have been the ultimate goal of the filmmaker. As horrible as the sins of the child killer are — the parents are reduced to something which may be much worse. Not that I felt pity for the child killer. …and, I have to admit, I am not sure what I would do as a parent if given that opportunity. Don’t pass a judgment till you’re in the shoes. You know? However, I felt sad to see these damaged parents trudging in to inflict torture on the man who took the most important part of their life away in the most vile of ways. …and, to drive the point home — one of the film’s most upsetting and darkly comic moments take place near the very end of the film when Lady vengeance gathers all the parents together for cake. Vengeance has been taken.
…But to what point?

You won’t find these sorts of issues in a Charles Bronson film!

Yeong-ae Lee portrays Lady Vegance. She does quite well — particularly with the comic turns. And, there are many. And, she totally has the look of an angel — which embodies much of the symbolism employed throughout the film. However, she is somewhat limited when it comes to dramatic acting. This would not be an easy role for a young actress, but she works it well enough.

In the end, I wish OLDBOY were not a part of a flawed trilogy. But, if you want to see something a bit different which is likely to be watered down for Jet Li any day now — check it out!

April 16, 2006. Uncategorized.


  1. Jon replied:

    Trust me, the majority of poeple in Japan aren’t watching ‘Ichi the Killer’ or ‘Violent Cop’, and the majority of Koreans aren’t watching ‘301, 302’. But still, there are great films from both Korea and Japan, I highly agree.

    This isn’t the same genre and I’m going slightly off topic, but if you haven’t seen the film ‘Firefly Dreams’ (directed by an Englishman), I recommend it. It’s about a teenage girl who spends the summer working at the country inn of relatives, and how she befriends an old lady who, at the beginning of the film, would have seemed highly unlikely. Anyhoo, if you haven’t seen ‘Firefly Dreams’ yet, rent it and email me what you think of it.

  2. ing replied:

    Lady Vengeance does sound disturbing — do you think the filmmaker knew what he (he, not she?) felt about the subject & its implications? Is there any guidance at all?

  3. matt replied:

    Jon — Yeah, I know. And, I am going to run to the “art house” type every time. Tho, the vengeance trilogy has done quite well in Korea. And I do see a great deal going on in the mainstream fare, but it sort of seaps out from the edges. Fascinates me.

    I did see Firefly Dreams several years ago. I want to see it again since you liked it so. I don’t remember it grabbing me, but I’d now like a second view. I might still have it here somewhere.

    Ing — Yeah, he most definitely has an agenda thru the comedy and violence. Lots of clue and metaphor Strange, disturbing, challenging and odd. Not a masterpiece, but well worth it. …if you can stomach it!

  4. ginab replied:

    Park Chan-wook is so damn handsome! Yikes!

    I’m otherwise not so hip as you, Matty. Except I watch mostly foreign films. I’m waiting for “The Apartment” by Bergman. Then there’s “Ranshook” except I think I spelled this wrong. I know it’s Chinese or Japanese. Chan-wook kind of looks Japanese to me. Oh dear. Am I making poo of soup?


  5. matt replied:

    Gina — I’m not hip. I’m a total movie geek. But I do so love the movies! I think Ing, Alan and I are seeing that new film about Bettie Page. I am psyched that it was written/directed/produced by women. Fly in for Wednesday and see it with us, k?

    Yeah, isn’t that writer/director hot?!?!?

    (sigh) …and, he is quite talented — which is REALLY why I find him hot.

    Hey, if I kidnap that Bode Miller guy and give him to you when you come to SF as a present — will you move here? I think Ingrid would be up for assisting me with this.

    Ing — Are you up for it? I figure we can do this when we kidnap Beck for you. ????

  6. ginab replied:

    When Bode Miller turns fifty two…oh, that won’t work. Geez. He’ll never be old enough or with enough experience, outside of skiing really fast.

    I meant I’ll see Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”. I got the word apartment in my head because I’m moving.

    I heard a review on NPR of the Betty Page flick. Not so good. Cardboard. Banal. Unflattering. unfair. I hope I didn’t spoil it for you. I guess I saved myself the expense of a plane ticket!


  7. sage replied:

    interesting reviews… I haven’t seen many Korean ones–Chunyang comes to mind, and I have Three Iron in my quene from Netflix.

    Do you know of the Japanese trilogy by Masaki Kabayashi, “The Human Condition?” I’ve seen the first one (each one is about 3 hours long). I’d like to know more about him–he’s supposedly a Marxist, who drew from Christian symbolism (the first of the trilogy is titled “No Greater Love). This unique combination is intriguing. They are movies made in the late 50s and are about the 2nd World War in Mancharia.

  8. matt replied:

    Sage — No, I have not seen any of that trilogy. I am familiar with the filmmaker, tho. I tend to not get into the whole Asian film scene until the 90’s era. But, I might have to check it out!

    I think you’ll love 3 Iron. Very cool and beautiful movie. …think weightless. I was able to see at a film fest here in SF on huge screen. So beautifully filmed. I own it on DVD, tho. Very odd and sexy.

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