This is a movie where the director wanted to start with color, and end in black-and-white. There’s a feature on the DVD, erroneously labeled the “Fade to White Version,” in some places, which does exactly as Park initially intended. The movie indeed begins super-saturated, super-colorful, but ends in black-and-white. To make this work, the color spectrum of the film itself, regardless the DVD special feature applied, changes. There’s an immense attention to the visual texture of the film, the costumes and environments given where in time they exist. As the tone shifts, moving from light-hearted to deadly serious, the image is threatened by shadow, by consumption of her black, black soul.
In practice, the Fade to Black and White version makes the middle segment of the movie sort of greyish, and so the original film works as a fade to black-and-white, even if it’s not literally being bleached of color. And the ‘gimmick’ isn’t just born of the past expiry scenario, because while this is a trilogy-ender, the trilogy itself was non-traditional to begin with.
In fact, Lady Vengeance is the one that made the trilogy — after Oldboy, a journalist pointed out that he’s done two revenge movies in a row (just like everyone else in Korea), and spur of the moment, Park insisted that it’s because he’s doing a trilogy, and it’s all deliberate. Thus, Lady Vengeance is created. And from that simpleton origin, the massive talents of the creative team here ushers in the most complex film Park has directed to date, a non-linear, challenging, and provocative story about vengeance on a much larger scale.
While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is pure raw violence of the highest order, and Oldboy is a stomach-churning spectacle of immense beauty, Lady Vengeance is a sprawling yet personal tale, one woman’s revenge on not just one man, but her community.
To compare again, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is very straightforward, bare-bones in plot, and Oldboy is masterfully told, for all its complexities which don’t necessarily reach beyond itself, but Lady Vengeance, even after multiple rewatchings, isn’t entirely clear. Lee Guem-Ja is just an enigmatic when she starts as when she ends, but her journey is felt.
It’s violent to match the director’s earlier gory highs, but much more frank about its disturbing tendencies. This is, afterall, film #3. JSA entirely lacks the Vengeance Trilogy’s darkness, and arguably, that darkness reaches apex here.
But again, it’s all up to your interpretation, because that much isn’t clear to me. Mostly, the movie exists moment-to-moment, because that much is clear, by way of being visceral, I suppose. Oral sexual assault, cannibalism, torture, scissor murder, brutal spousal abuse, dog-killing, death by soap, death by custom derringer, death by gas (maybe), sex with your jacket on, Engrish at gunpoint, and the eeriest ‘found footage’ ever, of serial child murders with the parents’ reactions to boot — this film is a parade of increasingly fucked up situations and images.
It’s a wonder how it all hangs together. Or even comes across, but what is also clear is its cinematic richness. Visually, it’s a spiritual precedent to Drive, with that sharp feminine look with animal sensibility. Perhaps we don’t want to see that severed hand in as great detail as Park offers us, but it’s there.
Of course, the most tremendous aspect of the movie, and a major part of what lands it so high on this personal list, despite generally being considered the worst of the three revenge flicks, is not only the female rep in an unfamiliar role, but an Earth-shattering performance by Young Ae Lee. In just three feature film roles, Lee was able to win my heart, at least, and while I do prefer JSA as a film, and Sophie Jang as a character (controversial choice; I’ll live with it), Lee Guem Ja is tragic and hilarious and powerful and shocking.
The outfit she ends up in is totally serial killer, or slasher villain — it’s great. She becomes a mythical figure in the movie, aided by narration of a different character, and endowed with seemingly mystical abilities. We see inside her mind, all of those fantasies and dreams, and we see her stark reality, the flesh and anger humanity squeezing the handle of that gun, struggling to keep the monster within sedate. It’s got a bigger target, always.