How polarizing is Korean art-house provocateur Park Chanwook, whose genre taste for extreme violence is matched by an extreme talent for genre elegance shocking in its beauty? So much so that I’m split right down the middle myself. I was repelled by the lavish perversity of Old Boy, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. And yet I’m nervously enraptured by Lady Vengeance, which concludes a trilogy that Park began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (made in 2001, before Old Boy, but released here afterward). Misdeed besotted with violence is still the filmmaker’s action of choice, and exquisite compositional audacity is still his thing. But the third movie is also suffused with a stirring sadness missing from the other two, as the maturing filmmaker considers the moral toll taken on the avenger — even the avenger of a crime as horrific as the kidnap and murder of a child.
To emphasize the porous border between saint and sinner, Park establishes the title lady and alleged murderer, Lee Geum-ja (lovely Lee Young-ae, famous in Korea as a wholesome TV star), as an angelic paragon of religious rehabilitation when she emerges after a 13-year prison sentence; she takes a job in a bakery making heavenly confections.
But not only was Geum-ja wrongly convicted on a set-up charge, she’s also wrongly assumed to be a born-again good girl, and she goes about settling scores with blood and a calm determination just this side of beatitude. Old Boy‘s vivid star Choi Min-sik plays a terrible schoolteacher — yet another damned soul in Park’s inflammatory, inimitable movie inventory of hell on earth.