Revisiting movies that are parts of sets
The first time I watched Lady Vengeance, I found my reaction to the film relatively cool, at least until the final act, where an interesting drama emerges, in part distracted by very stylized visual elements of the film, but also not prepared for its slow build towards the finale. On my most recent viewing, I found the visual direction of the film enthralling, and the exploration of preparing for vengeance, but also the conflation of that vengeance with redemption and justice woven into the film quite fascinating, making the ending of the film even more impressive.
In this tale of vengeance, the titular lady is Geumja (Lee Youngae), known as "Geumja the Kind-Hearted" by her fellow inmates, for her overwhelming compassion for them. Having been forced to take the fall for her conspirator, Mr. Baek's (Choi Minshik) murder of a young child, under the threat of the death of her own child, she is released thirteen years later, marshaling favors from her many released fellow inmates in long preparation for her revenge and, with it, her hope for redemption for her part in leading to that child's death.
Lady Vengeance actually has a much lighter and more optimistic tone than its predecessors because it incorporates a theme of redemption, and, perhaps because of it, it also contains a great deal more humor (even if it's of the blackest sort). On the other hand, the first two thirds of the film are quite a slow build towards the final, spending the first third watching Geumja prepare for revenge by contacting the many allies she made in prison. The second throws a kink in her plan as she visits her adopted-to-Australia daughter, Jenny (Kwon Yeyoung) only to acquire her.
The pacing is slow and overflowing with story details, much of which isn't economical in terms of storytelling tightness, however, most of which actually speaks directly into the rather complex heart of Geumja, from her need for her vengeance to be both beautiful and appropriate, she takes the time to wear crimson makeup and dresses in a sexy manner to strike against her innocent natural appearance as she knows she is going into a dark place, all the way to how her plans for revenge also involve being kind to others in order to win them over to her, a cold and manipulative tactic, and yet all of this comes to impact the decisions she makes in the final act of the film and has a lot to say about the blurring between vengeance and justice, as well as how she feels the burden of guilt and how what she's doing is also in pursuit of redemption and by the end of the film, I was utterly moved by Geumja's plight.
Lady Vengeance shows an even higher attention to aesthetic detail from director Park Chanwook, which mirrors the protagonists insistence on aesthetics mirroring internal realities. Similarly, the film features a section chromatic shift from brighter warmer colors to darker colder ones over the course of the film, and, in fact, a "fade-to-white" version of the film was also released, using digital post-processing to gradually desaturate the film from start to finish. This attention to visual detail shows in every camera setup, including the framing of the most mundane flashback scenes in prison, which are evocative and often dynamic and the cinematography is accordingly fantastic, taking care to capture the contrast between light and darkness on the street outside her home (including when it's important to the plot) as well as using photography tricks to capture snow and affect the continually darkening mood of the film.
The aesthetic brilliance even extends into the production and art design of the film, just looking at the wild colors of Geumja's apartment, her beautiful bakery work, and even the gorgeous opening credits sequence, which blurs the line between baking and the sinful desire for blood. Of course, with so much of the film's pathos carried on the titular character, it's a great credit that Lee Youngae captures the complex character so well, striking a contrast against her good-girl TV drama persona. She's especially effective in carrying Geumja's tremendous sadness and guilt under her sexy and cold exterior. Choi, who really has a small role in this film, also transforms against his usually sympathetic characters and makes a meal of his few scenes in becoming a complete monster. The film also boasts a number of great cameos from actors in Park's past films really tying the films together in an interesting way.
Oh yeah, the score is pretty awesome and memorable too, like Oldboy, dropping in a little baroque music, appropriately, as the aesthetics of the film, especially during the first half, could be called baroque.
Being as extravagant a work as it is, Lady Vengeance could certainly be called a little unwieldy and it was certainly so overflowing with detail that it was almost too much to take the first time I saw the film. Furthermore, the slow build-up towards the finale isn't exceptionally captivating and so I understand how many who have appreciated Oldboy might be disappointed here, but it's not that different from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in taking its time to reach a potent conclusion. And, I feel, from a story-telling point of view, that finale is phenomenal and incorporates well all that detail into a conclusion that explores well the films themes of vengeance, justice, redemption and guilt. All of this is provided through one of the most visually dazzling displays of directing, cinematography and production aesthetics I've yet seen in contemporary cinema, combined with a star-worthy performance by Lee Youngae. And that really elevated Lady Vengeance for me into a pinnacle of Park's filmography and Korean film on the whole. 9/10.