A look back at the bawdy yet alluring work of Director Park Chan Wook, ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’—in light of his new release, ‘The Handmaiden.’ Available for streaming on Netflix.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a film lost in translation. The poetry embodied in every line is replaced by subdued diction that fails to nearly capture the poignancy of the original Korean words. Language is in fact one of the many subjects of the film; Geum ja, the heroine and villain of the story, struggles to communicate with her reunited daughter Jenny, who had been adopted by Australian foster parents as a baby. Unable to speak each other’s language, they resort to dictionaries, leading to awkward and fragmented phrases that are comical yet sentimental. There is a scene in which Geum ja forces Mr. Baek, whom she has kidnapped and tied up (for vengeance) to translate her words into English for her daughter. The position of the characters in this scene is fascinating: the tied up Mr. Baek is placed between the mother and daughter. Geum ja and Mr. Baek are both facing Jenny, suggesting a sense that she is literally speaking through this man; her words are going into and back out of the translator, as she tries to explain to Jenny her reasons for abandoning her. However, her tragedy is lost in its translation. In the same sense, the original lines of the film are placated into subtitles that are unsentimental.
Surprisingly, the dialogue between the mother and daughter is still highly intimate despite the interruption of Mr. Baek who is translating Geum ja’s words. The film’s editing illustrates Geum ja speaking directly to her daughter—the translator becomes visually blurred and his voice distanced. At one point, he is forced to translate his own death in third person, when Geum ja says in Korean, “Tell her, ‘after I am done with this man, I must return you back to Australia.’” Mr. Baek must take on the voice of his killer and translate his own fate, meanwhile also portraying the voice of a mother speaking so genuinely and remorsefully to her daughter. This entire ordeal is even more sinister in the context of their relationship. The relationship between the three is intensely complex—Mr. Baek, a sort of embodiment of the patriarchy and abusive eroticism had been the perpetrator of the mother and daughter’s separation. We learn through various flashbacks that after murdering a young boy, he had threatened Geum ja to kill her own baby if she did not take the blame for his child murder. As consequence, Geum ja spends 13 years in jail, and Jenny is adopted by an Australian couple.
The film was released in 2005, completing Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003). Unfortunately, none of the three films received much recognition from film critics and frequent moviegoers, but Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengence remain cult classics within the niche of fans of that genre. Even apart from the trilogy, Park’s films are notorious for its dark humor and crude subjects—a factor that both draws and repels the audience—his incredibly vulgar footages are sometimes criticized for it excessiveness. Similarly to the course of many directors, Park also stepped his toe into the water as a film critic, quickly becoming inspired to direct his own movies. When asked what he hoped to establish through his consecutive themes of vengeance, Park claimed he wanted to illuminate the futility of revenge and the number of lives entangled in the act that may only begin with two individuals. This statement is definitely accurate and apparent in Lady Vengeance, as we begin to slowly see past our heroine’s mere front.
Geum ja is a character of paradox who is both aware, and seemingly un-conflicted by her contradictions. The most apparent of her paradoxes is her natural tenderness for Jenny, contrasted by her violence and obsession with vengeance. She does not try to separate the two; in fact, she merges the two contradictions together. We see this through her deliberation of the three-person dialogue between Jenny, a symbol of her motherhood, and the tied-up Mr. Baek, a manifestation of her hatred (perhaps even specifically of men). Her instinctual motherhood exists simultaneously with her violence, and she readily joins the two contradicting forces together through this physical interaction. It’s surprising that she is not the least bit concerned with hiding from her daughter her rather violent nature. This transparency is what makes her the alluring character that she is, for she completely and innocently embraces her faults and vulnerabilities. However, although she embraces her two contradicting worlds, she understands the consequences that will result from bringing her daughter up in such a violent context, and wishes to send the daughter back to her foster parents. Both the mother and daughter can be seen as products of the violence of their society—violence that is largely defined by the horrifying illustration of the patriarchy and the commodification of human lives. Mr. Baek is a representative of these cruelties, and his murder is then, a sort of rebellion against such societal violence.
In perhaps one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Mr. Baek stands up in the middle of breakfast and forces himself upon his wife right then and there at the dining table, without uttering a single word to her. They then proceed to finish their breakfast. The wife’s lack of reproach suggests that this type of marital rape occurs frequently in their relationship, illuminating the frightening inequality of authority between genders. The same Mrs. Baek would then help Geum ja in killing her husband. Perhaps a bit too unfairly for the male audience, almost all male characters are portrayed as either violent or creepy. There is the preacher who seems questionably obsessed with Geum ja, and the two men hired to kidnap her, among many other detestable men. All vices seem to be represented by the male gender; men and women are put aggressively against each other. In this world, sex is not portrayed as appealing, but rather as meaningless, jaded, and often violent.
Geum ja is striking in both her physicality and mysteriousness. Like every other stylistic element of the film, her appearance is further intensified to achieve a look that seems purposefully overboard. She is seen in elaborate outfits, such as a black leather coat with long black leather boots, with red eye shadow that looks especially vibrant on her pale face. When an ex-inmate questions the absurdity of her makeup, she responds in her unfailing nonchalance, “I don’t want to look sympathetic.” The red and white contrast matches the opening scene of the film, as red blood drips down a blank white canvas. Her identity is that of the red against the white: shocking yet alluring. Geum ja is almost emotionally tyrannical in that she breeds everyone’s obsession for her, men and women alike. Her female ex-inmates readily offer her any and all forms of service after her release, without questioning the plan or the potential consequences of her vengeance. While in prison, she’s hailed as an angelic heroine despite her violence. It’s fascinating that violence is accepted and even revered, when caused upon a universally despised character.
The general color palette and style of the film is similarly colorful and appealing. This stylistic amplification reflects an overarching theme of paradox in the story: a bright and flashy style that lightens the ugliness of its subjects. Director Park mainly plays with the film’s colors through the color or design of the walls inside each room. For example, the women’s prison wall is painted pink and is filmed in bright lighting—contrasting with some of the foul scenes that occur in the cell. On the other hand, Geum ja’s room is zebra-printed in red and black, and the lighting is usually dark. Perhaps this signifies something of Geum ja’s mind, a pattern that is a bit clashing, and disorienting to look at for a long time. The film and its characters are aware of this tension between the ugly and the beautiful. Geum ja asks one of her ex-inmates to customize for her an (unnecessarily) extravagant gun she plans on using to shoot Mr. Baek with. “What’s the use of all this fanciness? Better to have a strong, solid shot,” her friend comments. To which Geum ja responds (again in her soft-spoken nonchalance), “It has to be pretty. It should always be pretty,” meanwhile gently brushing her fingers over the gun. Her insistence on the beauty of things mirrors Director Park’s insistence on the contrast between the film’s beautiful images to the story’s physical and institutional violence.