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Bechdel Test Canon: Lady Vengeance

Today's entry is one of two movies in the series that is part of a trilogy. It is particularly noteworthy for following an installment that gets more critical attention. Frankly, I think Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is massively overrated. It seems strange to me that Hollywood has attempted to remake it so many times since its 2003 release, though its densely choreographed action sequences and emotional bombast elucidate its stateside mainstream appeal. The feted second feature of the Korean filmmaker's vengeance trilogy is celebrated for its grim subject matter, varied cinematic style, composer Jo Yeong-wook's sophisticated score, and emotional nuance.

Lady Vengeance has all of these elements and far surpasses Oldboy in its ability to dazzle and unnerve.

Lady Vengeance poster

Lady Vengeance focuses on protagonist Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae), a young woman who is released from jail following a long prison sentence for a murder she did not commit. A young boy named Won-mo was tortured and killed by pre-school teacher Mr. Baek (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik), who threatened a similar fate on Lee Geum-ja's newborn daughter if she didn't take the rap. Upon her release, she is bent on revenge.

Though the movie begins with a Christian procession for Geum-ja's release, it promptly dives in to her time at the women's correctional facility. Here, she develops a reputation as an angel. She looks after many of her cellmates, donating a kidney to one of them. She also poisons the prison bully, a rapist who fits the unfortunate prison film stereotype of the predatory, heavy-set butch lesbian inmate. Their back stories are given considerable attention, providing the possibility for the movie to branch out in a number of ways akin to the opening scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. These origins represent most of them to be kind young women of similar station to Geum-ja who were led to criminal activity by an oppressive political system that gave them few options. One such woman is Baek's wife, an abused woman who served time with the lead character. She helps Geum-ja kidnap her husband, spiking his meal with a strong sedative while her friend kills his attendants.

After getting out of prison, Geum-ja reunites with her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young). She is a pre-teen living with a suburban Australian couple (Tony Barry and Anne Cordiner). Mother and daughter encounter a language barrier, but this does little to deter Jenny. Though still harboring some resentment, she prioritizes the chance to reconnect over her lack of proficiency with the Korean language. Geum-ja intends to leave her daughter with her adoptive parents because she does not believe herself worthy of her daughter's love, but relents when she threatens to kill herself with a pair of scissors.

Geum-ja and Jenny

The final hour centers around killing Baek. Geum-ja contacts Detective Choi (Nam Il-Wu), who worked on the Won-mo case. They ransack his home and discover several snuff films of his victims. Their family members are contacted and invited to avenge their children's deaths. Several of them convene with Geum-ja in an abandoned elementary school to determine their course of action. Their socioeconomic disparities are quite interesting. Though Baek teaches at a private school, only one child's stoic grandmother is visibly wealthy. Some of the families come from working-class backgrounds. One couple is now divorced, undoubtedly as the result of the trauma.

Noting Korea's bureaucratic inefficiency, Geum-ja provides the family members with a choice: They can either alert the authorities or take justice into their own hands. The group decides on the latter, taking a picture together as evidence so they cannot later testify against one another. Adorned with plastic coats, each family member walks into an empty classroom where Baek is tied up. They go after him with knives, axes, and other weapons, the grandmother delivering the final blow with a pair of her grandchild's scissors, which she lodges into the back of his neck. Though the violence occurs off-screen, its psychological impact is evident when they bury his body and quietly share a commemorative birthday cake at the bakery Geum-ja works at following the ordeal.

Lady Vengeance killers

It seems as though killing Baek ultimately offers little release for Geum-ja. She is still haunted by her implication in Won-mo's murder following his murderer's execution and wants her daughter to remain distant from her. She and Jenny share the film's poignant final moment. Holding a white cake that resembles a block of tofu, Geum-ja orders her daughter to "live white" or to be pure and resist many of the evils Geum-ja has had to grapple with. Jenny replies that her mother should aspire toward a similar goal—implying that she should quit punishing herself for the past—moving Geum-ja to tears. The movie closes on the image of her face buried in the cake as her daughter comforts her under a snowy night sky. There is little resolution to this ending, but suggests that Jenny and Geum-ja are forever connected as a result of what they lived through together.

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Unconventional Revenge

Great summary! This is a film that I did not fully appreciate until a second viewing. Its narrative structure makes it a bit of a puzzle the first time around with so many unexplained flashbacks and cutaways.

What I liked most about "Lady Vengeance" was the way it took apart the classic revenge narrative by making it this methodical, communal process. Initially, it's very much Geum-Ja's mission to get violence for herself, but her own experiences are undercut by the discovery of the tapes. The scenes of Baek's torture could easily have strayed into torture porn territory, but instead, you so very little of the actual contact between the family members and Baek. It's a joyless, unfulfilling revenge that captures the futility of punishing someone for a loss that cannot be regained.

On a more superficial note, I love the cinematography and mise en scene in this film! It differs dramatically from the two other "Vengeance" films, which center upon male protagonists and keep the lighting and costuming very dark and moody.

Dish best served cold

I didn't think the movie showed any real closure for any of the families. During the torture, they seemed horrified and disgusted at what they were doing. That plus Geum-Ja's ending reveal that "an eye-for-an-eye," as many cavalier Americans like to say, doesn't make anything better or erase the horror these people will continue to experience for the rest of their lives. In my opinion, their actions will probably make it worse for them in the long run. A very challenging and intelligent film.

I completely agree, Rachel R.

I completely agree, Rachel R. Their disgust over their actions and the lack of resolution it provides--that barbaric violence isn't going to avenge their children's memory or provide them catharsis--is the most unsettling part of the movie for me.

Alyx Vesey

I absolutely agree about the

I absolutely agree about the communal process of revenge, Caitlin. I also think about the civic ramifications and strictures of what they're doing in relation to revenge. Knowing very little about Korea's political climate beyond North Korea's current dictatorship (Park Chan-wook is South Korean, and the climactic execution of Mr. Baek occurs outside of Soeul), I have to think of Lady Vengeance and the trilogy out of which it originates as an indictment on South Korea's political system. Thus it brings the act of revenge into a political context. 

I second your hailing of the film's aesthetics. The gloominess you note in the first two installments kicked me out of Oldboy. Too much male seriousness. I appreciate how colorful the film's pallete is, as well as how varied its style is. I didn't have room to elaborate upon it, but the ways in which Geum-Ja's inmates are introduced and her correspondence with her daughter is framed are my favorite moments in the movie, not the least of which is due to their formal creativity.

 

Alyx Vesey

Great film

I was confused by the ending, and still am on some level, though I think this is a characteristic of Asian films, ambigous endings. But I like this in Asian films, they are realistic in that in life there are rarely clean cut endings and happily ever afters.

Overall, a good film.

I don't want to essentialize

I don't want to essentialize about Asian films having characteristically ambiguous endings (or Asian films in general, as the continent has several countries, each with particular language systems, ecological climates, cultural codes, and religious and political beliefs). As a Western viewer, there are a whole set of narrative devices and symbols I haven't learned and don't want to presume. Furthermore, many movies from all over the world--including the states--contain messy or unresolved conclusions.

However, I do think the ending is incredibly powerful. I believe this not because it provides any closure, but because it suggests that Geum-Ja has a lot of grief and trauma to process that violence won't solve. I think her daughter's awareness of that psychological damage and her clear willingness to want to help her do that is profoundly moving and complicates traditional representations of mother-daughter relationships.

Alyx Vesey

Some cultural issues raised in this film

I live and work in South Korea and have a Korean partner (I'm English).

Issues touched on in the course of the film which you might want the cultural background on:

1) Abortion is illegal in South Korea but is absolutely rife through a thriving backstreet industry. Doctors make a significant income from this, but it's for those who can scrape some money together. 'Orphanages' in SK are mostly filled with the unplanned children of working-class girls and women who cannot, in a Confucian society, support the offspring of unmarried sexual contact.
2) Marital rape is still legal in South Korea, just as it was in Britain until 1994, although it is absolutely not regarded as a good thing. I am sure Park's representation of Mr Baek's wife being violated over the breakfast table is an attempt to hold society to account in this respect.
3) Women can be jailed for adultery here. Men are never, as far as I know. The current president, the nominally conservative Lee Myeung-Bak, has tried to strike down this law but his attempts have been thwarted.
4) Education: Mr Baek's school is not a daytime private school; it's a hagwon. A hagwon is an academy that runs after normal school hours are over. Parents will pour vast sums of money into sending their children to such schools, even if they are poor. As a state school teacher, I educate some kids who don't attend hagwon. I know one of them, who also has mental problems, lives in a house infested with mice. If you don't go to a hagwon, you usually are the poorest of the poor (or have very progressive parents). The children will come home from hagwon at 10 or 11 o'clock at night and then get on with their homework.
5) Clothes: I'm actually pretty sure that, other than the labouring family and the rich grandmother, all the families are lower middle-class. North Face jackets and great big puffa coats are a sort of uniform for everyone in SK during the extremely bitter winter, class background irrespective.
6) The grandmother: South Korea is nominally a very patriarchal society. When I was single out here, I had a colleague tell me to stop reading mystery, war and detective novels or I would never get a boyfriend. He was being serious. However, the level of respect and honour given to old women is immense and their sense of entitlement very high. In reality, they are treated with more respect than old men. Further, wealth brings power in all societies as far as I know, but here that is openly admitted rather than being seen as deviant, unfair or bad.
7) Bureaucracy: Geum-Ja's assessment is entirely correct. There is a great deal of red tape here and in my experience, everyone hates it, but they don't feel able to change it. Regarding the court system, this year SK's first ever sexual harrassment case (hushed up from all Korea's English language media but widely reported in the Korean-language press) was won by a woman fighting against Samsung's atrocious treatment of her. That took her seven years to win, as far as I know.

I can't agree that there is any reference whatsoever to North Korea in this film, but if you want to see a movie by Park Chan-Wook that entirely centres around NK / SK, I would recommend Joint Security Area. That also has a strong female role, though it mostly focuses on young male soldiers and a doomed friendship.

I hope nobody thinks I am being offensive here, because I just want to state some background to this film. Generally I think Park is a director who likes to shine a light on his society's problems. 'Thirst', his vampire film (which I didn't like much) focused as a subplot on the story of several Filipina catalogue brides, brought to Korea to supplement the defecit in women in my agegroup left by abortion of female foetuses in the late 70s and the 80s. This was the film's sole saving grace in my eyes, because Park had illustrated the lives of some personal friends of mine and gave a little insight into how tough it can be for them here.

Seconding this observation...

Many Korean people will invest huge sums of money into hagwon, even if it seems that they can't afford it, because image is darn near everything when it comes to the competitive edge of getting a child into University. These academies are in addition to the tutors and study groups that parents will work to get their kids into. Only the very poorest of the poor do not send their children. The busses in our neighborhood drop children off anywhere from 21-2200 at night, and then it isn't uncommon to see parents in the parking garage doing exercise (like jump-rope) afterward.

I would be careful, when commenting on this film, to not conflate the political situation in North Korea with that of South Korea. While this film is, yes, a commentary on some situations that take place in South Korea. While RoK is very much a police state in some circumstances, it is not like it's Northern Neighbor. I doubt the characters portrayed would have been released from a prison were that the case. I haven't seen this movie or JSA, but I should add them to my queue, since I found Oldboy to be so oddly horrifying and enjoy Korean pop culture so.

And yes, the lot of women in South Korea is not as advanced in the opinion of Western women, I would caution people to not compare it in that lens (not that this is what is entirely what is happening here in this thread). Korean women have come a long way, and in some instances have actually made better advances in their own right. My husband did a graduate paper at University here about the equality of women in Korea, and the research was amazingly revealing. While Korean women are still being blamed for their own rapes for wearing "skinny" jeans (something else that President Bak is working on), they are also heads of major corporations and in prominent positions for companies like Samsung and LG. It isn't really fair to compare culturally.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

see the first one!

I personally did not think very much of this film, but highly enjoyed the other two: the second, Oldboy, which you mentioned (which I agree is often overrated), and the first, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (which in my opinion is totally underrated).

Sympathy, to me, is BY FAR the most intellectual, unusual, and harrowing of the three. People who were queasy during Oldboy won't enjoy it, but people who though Lady V was kind of a let down should definitely see the one that inspired the next two.

I saw them in order, which might be why I'm so partial to the first one. Who knows why Oldboy gets so much attention when Sympathy doesn't -- I guess word of mouth.