Re-watching this film for the first time since it played at the HK Asian Film Festival in 2005, I was finally able to check out the “Fade to Black & White” version, which was Park’s original vision for the film. Although shot in colour, the film slowly fades to black and white over its duration, something that he was only able to do digitally and share widely through the DVD release of the film. Of course, had he made the film today, when most films are screened digitally anyway, we could have all experienced this version on the big screen.
After the phenomenal global success of Oldboy, Park was clearly given free rein to do whatever he wanted, and as a result, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (or Lady Vengeance as it was released in the West) is by far the wackiest and weirdest of the director’s Vengeance films. It follows Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who is released from prison after serving 13 years for a crime she didn’t commit. She was convicted of murdering a young boy, in a case that proved a media sensation, and now free, she sets out to reap her revenge on the real killer (Choi Min-sik from Oldboy), while also tracking down her daughter, who was put up for adoption when Geum-ja was incarcerated.
Using a fractured time structure, numerous flashbacks and narrations, as well as experimenting with vivid uses of colour – both in the sets, costumes and the aforementioned film stock itself – the film is less immediately engrossing than his previous efforts. That said, for the first time it gives Park the opportunity to develop strong female characters, and Lee does an incredible job with the multi-faceted “kind-hearted Geum-ja” – seen by some as a saintly figure in prison, but an angel of death once back on the streets.
The result is perhaps a case of style over substance, but the style on display is so unique, so powerfully realised and just damn great to look at, that the film’s narrative weaknesses can be largely forgiven. That said, there are a number of superbly staged set-pieces, not least the lengthy climax, in which Geum-ja presents the grieving parents of the murdered children with their own opportunity for revenge. Not only is this a frightening example of Geum-ja’s powers of persuasion, but also of Park’s pitch black sense of humour, in that he is able to wring numerous laughs from an otherwise rather disturbing episode.
For some, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is a disappointment after the instantly gratifying neo-noir chic of Oldboy – a film that influenced a decade of Korean Cinema and will most likely continue to do so for many years to come. For others, however, it showed Park’s willingness to grow and challenge himself as a filmmaker, revealed his interest in exploring the visual dynamics of filmmaking, and also introduced a central protagonist every bit as iconic as Oldboy‘s Oh Dae-su or Kill Bill‘s The Bride, which was a notable recent precursor. There is no denying the film is flawed, but it is also stunningly beautiful, wickedly funny and boasts one hell of a fiendish femme fatale.