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June 21-27, 2006

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'Lady Vengeance'

Lady in the Red Dress: Young-ae Lee dishes out the pain in 'Lady Vengeance.'

Lady of Pain

Korea's Chan-wook Park wraps up his revenge trilogy with 'Lady Vengeance'

By Steve Palopoli

LEGEND has it that when Sergio Leone was making Once Upon a Time in the West, he tried to convince the lead actors from his previous "Dollars" trilogy of spaghetti Westerns to appear as the three gunmen waiting for hero Charles Bronson in the now-famous opening sequence of the film. Depending on who you ask, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach either wanted too much money or had other commitments; in any case, it never happened. But the logic was clear: had Bronson dispatched these towering icons of Leone's famous films, it would have established that he was bigger and badder than anything that had come before—and that, by extension, so was the film.

Korean director Chan-wook Park manages to pull off what Leone couldn't in Lady Vengeance, the final chapter of his "vengeance" trilogy. The protagonist here, for the first time in Park's films, is a woman, played by Young-ae Lee (who previously appeared in Park's first Korean hit, Joint Security Area). Over the course of the film, she has to battle Kang-ho Song and Ha-kyun Shin, who played the two bloodthirsty candidates for the title character in Park's first film in the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Then she has to take on primary revenge target Min-sik Choi, who was unforgettable as the lead in the trilogy's second film, Oldboy, and plays his first true villain here. I won't spoil how she stacks up against them, but the way that Park weaves these actors into the story is an example of the precise attention to detail that fans love about his films.

It's obvious that we're back in his obsessive universe from the opening credits, which revisit two visual themes he first introduced in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance: bright red roses and bright red blood. Actually, there are many allusions in Lady Vengeance to the first two films in the trilogy, but they make it seem not like a linear story spread over three parts but a downright mean universe where circumstances and symbols repeat, and different characters make the same mistakes. Once again, it's all fun and games until someone loses a kidney. And a child abducted by a naive woman (Lee) also recalls Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; in fact, the arguments used to convince her to go through with it are almost a word-for-word parroting of the rationalization used for the bizarre kidnapping in that earlier entry.

Lee's kidnapping-gone-awry is what sets off the events of Lady Vengeance. When the movie begins, she's just finished a 13-year prison sentence for a crime that she publicly admits to having committed. But beneath her celebrity-criminal exterior is an inner rage toward the man who's really responsible for the child's death.

And of course, she's spent her entire time in jail plotting her revenge, otherwise this wouldn't be a Chan-wook Park film. Both of the other films in this trilogy have been sort of "trick" revenge films—that is, they trick you into thinking that, like any other payback flick, they're going to be about watching the hero kick ass and take names. There is indeed a lot of ass-kicking, but Park's films are full of nasty twists and turns and end up being anti-revenge films. Perhaps more accurately, they're bloody meditations on the nature of vengeance, and Lady Vengeance is no different. In this one, Park gets to indulge his fixation on the subject to such an extent that at one point in the film there's actually a town-hall-meeting-type discussion on the pros and cons of revenge.

The deck is stacked differently in this movie, though, and while Park probably feels the message of Lady Vengeance is right in line with his previous films, I'd be interested to know exactly what audiences take away from its ending. The conclusions seem more complex, the delivery more subtle. A warning, though: there is nothing subtle about the very brief scenes involving violence against children. While they're not gratuitous in the context of the film, they're extremely disturbing.

If Park has loosened up a bit with the plot and themes, he's totally transcended his past films in terms of visual style. Lady Vengeance is full of outrageous visuals and wild intercutting. At one point, he paints over the frames themselves, as if there's not enough art packed into the two-dimensional space and he has to build up and out.

Throw in his trademark grotesque tangents, which in this case include lesbian prison rape, cannibalism and ritualistic tofu, and we've got ourselves a Park classic. It's a fitting end to his Vengeance trilogy, even if it's hard to believe this will really be his last word on the subject.

Movie TimesLady Vengeance (R; 112 min.), directed by Chan-wook Park, written by Park and Seo-Gyeong Jeong, photographed by Jeong-hun Jeong and starring Young-ae Lee, opens June 23 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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