Directed by Park Chanwook
Park Chanwook is perhaps one of the last people you’d expect to have crafted a compelling feminist film. What with his rep as the violent filmmaker of Oldboy who had a guy swallow a live octopus and rip a slew of people open with hammersthis guy knows how to make you squirmbut the inner workings of a woman’s mind? With Lady Vengeance, his final installment in his trilogy of revenge, he gets a little less bloody and explores a female world that can scare the shit out of you way more than a few eye gouges and snapped necks.
The obvious comparison after seeing Park Chanwook’s Lady Vengeance is to Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Both are revenge tales about a beautiful, betrayed woman separated from a child who she seeks to recover while sating some bloodlust. But whereas Tarantino conjured up a trained female assassin already lost to the world before turning on her boss and lover, Chanwook delivers a woman, Lee Geum-ja, who makes bad choices for the man she loves and suffers for it accordingly.
Chanwook has pushed his actors to incredible lengths in the past and Lee Young-ae as Lee Geum-ja is right up there with the riveting performance of Oldboy’s star, Choi Min-sik (who also reappears as the villain in this film). Although an innocent when she enters the women’s prison where she’s been sentenced for kidnapping and killing a young boy, she learns quickly to fend for herself.
At first her reputation for good deeds and sweet ways earns her the nickname Angel, but while defending other inmates from cruel treatment, she transforms into a great female protector and manipulator until she earns her moniker of Witch. This duality is a commentary Chanwook continues to launch at the image of the docile Korean woman/wife (a delicate mother with a bad heart decides to torture instead of her husband; another wife is bent over the table by her husband for rough sex while she continues to eat and uses the situation to manipulate the man).
The prison becomes a refuge from the world of men where women (murderers, adulterers, bank robbers) forge bonds and seek spiritual transcendence as if they were in fact monks instead of criminals. Lee appears to turn to evangelical Christian dogma and prays until her face literally glows. She spreads her gospel to another womanthe two of them lighting up their cell with a magical brilliance. But in fact, she’s creating a cabal of cohorts who she will later employ to seek her revenge.
But it’s not all a female prison paradise a la Chicago. When one woman, a sexually voracious lesbian, continues to beat and sexually abuse the others in their cell, Lee takes matters into her own hands and becomes a wicked savior. The women she helps are all bound to her and sacrifice themselves in their own complicit ways. When Lee is released (to a choir of singing Santas) she appears to have lost all chance at emotion. She makes it clear she’s not interested in Christian redemption and forgiveness and lacks the possibility of expressing tenderness to her former cellmates once in the real world. Instead, all her powers are geared towards her planned path to vengeancedone in a visually exciting and curiously complex manner: pure Chanwook. Instead of spoiling the progression of events and resolution, let’s just leave it as ambiguous as Lee’s characterconfused, driven by passion but never quite satiated.