Chan-wook Park’s “revenge trilogy” began brilliantly with “Oldboy,” stumbled only slightly with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” and now falls into deep trouble with “Lady Vengeance.” Nearly gone is the absurd, dark sense of humor. The plot is mostly free of twists and surprises. What’s the matter, Chan-wook? Has vengeance lost its fun?
Lady Vengeance is Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee), who at age 19 went to prison for kidnapping and murdering a little boy. Her crime shocked all of Korea at the time, and now, 12 1/2 years later, she is being released. She’s a changed woman, apparently, newly converted to Christianity and a model prisoner — “kind-hearted Geum-ja,” they called her. (That’s the film’s Korean title, too.) Yet when a minister greets her outside the prison with a loaf of tofu — symbolic of a reformed person’s vow to be pure henceforth — Geum-ja responds by dumping it on the ground.
Geum-ja has had a change of heart, all right: She was meek and decent before prison and is breathtakingly cold-hearted now. For reasons I won’t spoil she wants revenge on a man named Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi) and needs assistance from some of her ex-con friends to get it, thus explaining why she was so nice to them on the inside. Geum-ja had a young daughter when she got locked up, too, and is keen on finding her now.
The film, which Park co-wrote with Seo-Gyeong Jeong, is told in Park’s typically stylish way, with razor-sharp editing, screwy camera angles and all sort of photographic tricks. (Apparently his preferred version of the film slowly fades from color to black-and-white as it progresses, but that’s not the version being shown in the U.S.) The story emerges piece by piece, with many brief flashbacks to Geum-ja’s time in prison and to her fellow prisoners’ backstories — a sort of Korean “Chicago” — and the movie is two-thirds over before we completely understand what everyone is up to.
Such careful control over the details is fine, but “Lady Vengeance” proves to be much bloody ado about almost nothing. Its ideas are creepier on paper than they are in practice, and the whole product isn’t very satisfying. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Geum-ja should get revenge, and we should feel satisfied vicariously. Yet while the story does conclude more or less the way it ought to, it doesn’t have the feeling of catharsis that a revenge thriller needs. Somewhere over the course of this trilogy, most of the flavor has gone out.
C (1 hr., 52 min.; Korean with subtitles; )