Directed by Park Chan-wook
The famous film critic Roger Ebert once wrote that the 1955 film Ordet (1955) by Carl Theodor Dreyer had, “The most painful scene of medical procedure I have ever experienced in a film.” He was speaking about a childbirth scene where the audience could not see the actual procedure, but could hear the mother in the midst of death throes. Coming from a man who has had to watch and review many of the goriest and most violent films ever made, this observation may seem unusual. How can a scene where we don’t see any blood or gore go down as one of the most violent ever filmed? My answer is that violence in not something that can be easily quantified. A scene of a difficult childbirth can be more inherently violent than an onscreen decapitation. In some cases, extreme violence can be effective when it is only implied. Take the scene in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece Frenzy (1972) when he lingers on a woman entering a serial killer’s apartment. With a simple shot of a hallway, the audience immediately realizes that the poor woman will be killed. Though Psycho (1960) is Hitchcock’s goriest film, the aforementioned scene makes Frenzy his most violent.
So why have I brought all of this up? The answer is that I wish to set the stage for an examination of one of the most shocking, gripping, and yes, violent, films that I have ever seen. The catch is that as one of the most violent films ever made, there is relatively little gore. Instead, it is the implied violence and the psychological and emotional trauma that the audience is exposed to that makes it one of the most violent films ever made. The film in question is the South Korean 친 절한 금자씨, which literally translates to Kind-Hearted Ms. Geum-Ja. But it is more famous under its Western name, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
The third and final film of director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, it is far and away the best of the three. Chan-wook describes the trilogy as films that deal with the themes of “revenge, violence, and salvation.” The first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), deals with a father going after a young couple who kidnapped and accidentally killed his young daughter in a ransom scheme to get money for a kidney transplant. A fine film in its own right, it is nevertheless the weakest of the three, primarily because its famous violence seems out of place. Violence and gore play a strong role in all three films, but in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the over-the-top violence is often unnecessary for the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters. The second film, Oldboy (2003), is easily the most famous of the trilogy, becoming a cult favorite in its own right due in no small part to enthusiastic praise from Quentin Tarantino after viewing the film at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The film follows a man who gets locked up in a hotel room for a grueling 15 years only to escape and seek vengeance against the people who imprisoned him. Here, the visceral violence plays an important role in the development of the characters. The violence wreaked by the lead character documents his fall from grace. However, it relies too heavily on a twist near the end that somewhat diminishes the film upon subsequent viewings.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance focuses on a young woman named Lee Geum-ja. At the beginning of the film, we see Geum-ja leaving a prison yard having finished a reduced sentence for the crime of killing a young schoolboy named Won-mo. She is greeted by a Christian musical procession welcoming her upon her release. In prison, she was known as “Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja” for her kindness, delicate beauty, and her apparent conversion to Christianity. It is heavily implied that Christian lobbyists had a hand in reducing her sentence. So they joyfully greet her at the prison gate. They present her with a large block of tofu, saying that eating it is symbolic of her commitment to never sin again. Without flinching, she swats the tofu out of her way and mocks the procession. This scene has no gore, but watching the reactions of her Christian supporters makes it clear that this was one of the most violent actions that they have ever witnessed.
Geum-ja is not seeking salvation. She seeks revenge. In reality, she did not kill Won-mo. She merely confessed to the killing because the real murderer, a pre-school teacher named Mr. Baek, had kidnapped and threatened to kill her infant daughter. Her image and reputation of being “Kind-Hearted Geum-Ja” was merely a facade. For years she has plotted her revenge on the man who took away her life and her daughter.
But Geum-ja isn’t alone. During her stint in prison she made several friends by caring for some of the more emotionally weak inmates, donating a kidney to another, and even killing a prison bully by feeding her bleach. When she arrives at their various doorsteps, she is graciously welcomed and provided with food, shelter, and employment in a local bakery.
Through a strenuous process, Geum-ja manages to track down her daughter. After her incarceration, she was adopted by Australian parents and named Jenny. Now a young teenager, she only speaks English and has no recollection of her real mother. When Geum-ja visits, she only intends to see her and make sure that she is safe. But in another one of the film’s most violent scenes, Jenny callously rejects her adopted parents and goes back to Korea with Geum-ja.
A word of caution: for those who are easily disturbed, I would recommend skipping to the last paragraph of this review. From here on, things will only serve to get more violent and harrowing. Upon her arrival back in Seoul with Jenny, she manages to track down Mr. Baek. With the help of his abused wife (another one of Geum-ja’s prison mates) she kidnaps Mr. Baek. To her horror, she discovers that he has killed several children over the years. This realization comes when she discovers one of Won-mo’s marbles on Mr. Baek’s keychain along with several other trinkets collected from his other victims. With the help of a detective who originally worked on Won-mo’s case, they track down the parents of Mr. Baek’s victims.
In an abandoned school, the parents are assembled and made to watch a series of snuff tapes of Mr. Baek killing their children. These scenes are not easy to watch. But if you approach them from the point of view of a cinematic craftsman, it becomes apparent that they are works of genius. We see only small snippets of each film. Usually we only see the kids crying for a moment and calling out to their parents. These are the most violent scenes in the entire film. But it isn’t because we watch the kids being murdered. No, we watch the parents watch their kids getting murdered. In one particularly devastating scene, a young girl is made to stand on a stool with a noose around her neck. As she cries, Mr. Baek pulls the chair out from under her. With a swift cut, we see her parents fall from their chairs and hit the ground. It’s horrifying, but ingenious.
Afterwards, the parents decide that the justice system cannot bring Mr. Baek to justice. So after a tense debate they decide to kill him. Donned with raincoats to protect their clothes from blood, they each take turns stabbing him. Interestingly enough, we don’t actually see them cutting into him. We see the parents lunge at him, but Chan-wook always cuts away to the parents outside waiting their turn. It is obviously not an easy experience for them. Again, by not showing the actual violence but the reaction to it, Chan-wook elevates the violence in his film to a work of art.
After the deed is done and Mr. Baek is buried, there is a powerful scene where the parents assemble in Geum-ja’s bakery and have a collected birthday party for their dead children. They share a cake and sing happy birthday. A silence falls over the crowd and the chandelier above them begins to rattle. One of the parents whispers that in France, when a crowd falls silent, it is believed that angels fly overhead. The chandelier continues to rattle as the parents sit in silence and begin to cry.
The film ends with Geum-ja presenting a white cake that resembles the block of tofu from the beginning to Jenny. She begs her to “live white” and not sin. Jenny takes a taste and tells Geum-ja that she should do the same. Geum-ja breaks down and begins to cry with her long lost daughter holding her.
Some may wonder why I am advocating such a violent, disturbing film. Well, the answer is that I believe that it should be watched and studied. Too often these days, directors depend on cheap thrills and gross out effects to draw audiences in. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance does not fall into this trap. Park Chan-wook knew better. He realized that character development can often be more tragic, more shocking, and more violent than any horror villain with a bloody knife. For all its intensity and disturbing visuals, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a masterpiece that most directors can learn from. But it is a masterpiece that should only be enjoyed by the strong of heart and those who can remember that they are just watching a movie.