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Lady Vengeance

(2006) **** R
116 min. Tartan Films. Director: Chan-Wook Park. Cast: Lee Yeong-ae (II), Song Kang-ho, Yu Ji-tae, Nam Il-woo, Kim Si-hu.

South Korean maestro Park Chan-wook caps his thematic revenge trilogy—begun with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and continued in the international hit Oldboy—with the masterful tragicomedy Lady Vengeance. In the striking title sequence, blood blooms like roses. Park knows that vengeance, like a life, is a flower that blooms in its time; he also knows that vengeance is frequently a matter of blood or, in other words, family.

Lady Vengeance, then, cedes the stage to a mother, whose blood ties run deepest. But where Kill Bill seemed only interested in cartoon feminism (or anime feminism) as a vehicle for gory, postmodern yuks and synthetic melodrama, Lady Vengeance quickly establishes its heroine, Geum-ja, as a roiling mass of contradictions, one that the audience must reckon with as seriously as the other characters.

Though his intent and ultimate effect are dead-serious, Park hardly lacks senses of humor and style. After thirteen years in prison, Lee Geum-ja (a marvelous Lee Yeong-ae) emerges to find her Christian benefactors, banded together as a choir dressed in Santa suits. Geum-ja callously rejects their offer of a cube of tofu ("so that you'll live white and never sin again"), throwing doubt on her reputation among the Christians as "a real-life angel" as she sets about on her long-aborning revenge scheme.

She'll have her revenge and, she prays, her redemption, but on her own terms; her image is only a means to her end. Park and co-screenwriter Jeong Seo-Gyeong lay in allusions to iconic women: at one point, Geum-ja appears as a Delilah feverishly trimming another Samson, and at another she's said to resemble screen Juliet Olivia Hussey (cheekily, Park has a reporter observe "a tactless director announced plans for a Lee Geum-ja movie"). Wearing her sexuality with an apparent casualness, this anti-heroine also defiantly wears red eye shadow, as much willfully to banish her kind-hearted side as to strike fear.

The question of Geum-ja's innocence—and, indeed, her soul—is persistent. Incarcerated at 19 for the confessed abduction and murder of a five-year-old boy named Won-Mo, she earns the nicknames of "kind-hearted Geum-Ja" and "the Witch." As one fellow inmate explains, "Everyone wanted to help 'kind-hearted Geum-ja,' and no one could refuse 'the Witch' any favors." This carefully orchestrated sway pays off in spades on Geum-ja's release. Called-in favors help her quickly to secure lodging, a job in a bakery (she's a meticulous dessert chef), and lay the groundwork for a revenge that will not only be satisfying on a gut level, but elegant. She's nothing if not obsessed with detail, her blueprint plans for a custom double-barreled pistol sketched into the pages of The Way of Dhamma.

For reasons that become clear, Geum-ja's destination is a man named Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik of Oldboy), but her path is muddied by the ghost of Won-Mo and the resurgence of her teenage daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young). Guilt-ridden about both, Geum-ja wants to atone, and the driving desire imposes on her a fierce and personal morality that doubles as an allegory for familial vengeance in the form of capital punishment—its emotional pull and its inability to heal.

Oldboy's graphic-novel intensity was gruelingly entertaining, but lacked a deeper conviction. Clearly, Park is an inveterate showoff, but when the show is this much fun, who cares? Lady Vengeance allows Park his indulgences (there's practically a whole women-in-prison B-movie embedded in the flashbacks, complete with North Korean spy), but delivers more than the filmmaker ever has before. To his satisfyingly complex narrative and Oliver Stone (film-stock shifts and galloping edits) meets David Fincher (virtuosic, color-coded camerawork) style, Park adds richer themes and more skillful audience involvement.

In the picture's most crucial movement, late in the picture, Park finally pulls back on his own reins, and the jolt from swift movement to still contemplation is devastating as he straightforwardly confronts the audience with its own response to vengeance (hedging his bets, Park laces the scene with an undercurrent of gallows humor). Park's symbolism of globes—a child's inflatable globe, a blood-red marble, a snow globe—indicates his broadening horizons even as it suggests the insularity of his character's concerns.

Lady Vengeance can stand alone, but in wrapping his trilogy, Park once more examines the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth. Thrice, the freed Geum-ja is asked, "How could you have changed so much? This isn't like you." But who, after all, is she? Her journey is one of rediscovery of self, and it arrives at a mirthless, deeply ironic birthday party. The real rebirth, Park suggests, is in the opportunity and promise of offspring who may avoid the uncleansable sins of their mothers.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/15/2010

Distributor: Palisades Tartan

Palisades Tartan has brought its jewel in the crown to Blu-ray with its four-disc Vengeance Trilogy box set, collecting Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Aside from a few scattered digital artifacts (a bit of ringing here, a touch of noise there), Lady Vengeance looks beautiful in both versions presented here: the Theatrical Version and the director-preferred "Fade to White" version. The transfer achieves a film-like look with excellent detail and dimensionality: color is bold and accurate, and textures and black level are both strong. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix can likewise be considered definitive, easily besting its DVD counterpart for clarity. Naturally, the film has optional subtitles.

A Best Buy exclusive until June 15, 2010, the set is currently available in a limited-edition tin enclosing three standard Blu cases and a lovely thirty-page booklet including essays by director Eli Roth (Hostel), producer Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers), stunt coordinator/author John Kreng, and writer-director/producer Susan Montford (Splice), as well as a brief Giant Robot interview with Park.

The nine-plus hours of special features here kick off with three proficient audio tracks: audio commentary with director Chan-wook Park and actress Lee Young-ae; audio commentary with Park, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, and art director Cho Hwa-sung; and audio commentary with film critic Richard Peña, which takes into account the entire "Vengeance Trilogy" while also delving deeply into the technique and meaning of Lady Vengeance.

The "Fade to White" version of the film comes with an "Introduction by Park Chan-wook" (1:22, SD).

"Making of Lady Vengeance" (10:49, HD) and "Lady Vengeance EPK" (28:07, HD) offer two different ten-minute making-ofs, with the EPK also including the teaser trailer and theatrical trailer, as well as a highlight reel of film clips.

Style of Lady Vengeance begins by covering "Visualization" (6:23, HD) with Park, cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and lighting director Park Hyeon-weon. Following are "Production Design" (8:17, HD) with production designer Jo Hwa-seong, "Costume & Makeup" (8:05, HD) with makeup designer Song Jung-hee and costume designer Jo Song-gyeong, "Special Art" (7:02, HD) with special art director Hwang Ho-Kyeon, and "Computer Graphics" (6:58, HD) with F/X director Lee Jeon-hyeong.

"Interview with Park Chan-wook" (42:04, HD) is an extensive sit-down conducted during Park's press tour.

"Park Chan-wook, Mr. Vengeance" (17:21, HD) includes interviews with Park, film critic Kim Young-jin, webmaster Harry Knowles, Metal Gear game director Hideo Kojima, cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and lighting director Park Hyeon-weon.

"Photography" (9:48, HD) allows Park to explain and present the photographs he shot on the set.

"Director's Choice" (3:00, HD) includes brief interviews with Park and "The Freaking Family" directors Park Jae-young and Park Soo-young, about the short film "The Freaking Family," which Park Chan-wook recommends. Oddly, the film itself is not included.

A section of Character Interviews are actually better described as "character profiles" consisting of interviews with cast and crew and pertinent behind-the-scenes footage. We get "Lee Geum-Ja" (6:29, HD), "Professor Baek" (6:39, HD), "Prisoners" (5:21, hD), and "Families" (7:38, HD).

The featurette "Lady Vengeance in Venice" (8:24, HD)—including an interview with Park—details the film's appearance at the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the Young Lion, Best Innovative Film, and Cinema of the Future awards.

"Deleted Scenes with Commentary" (14:10, HD) play with non-optional commentary from Park and Lee, a frustrating choice which makes it impossible to enjoy (or much comprehend) the scenes on their own.

"Get Together" (9:26, HD) is a nifty featurette looking behind-the-scenes specifically at the cameo appearances by actors from the earlier "Vengeance" films.

Lastly, Marketing Materials include "TV Spots" (:38, HD), the "Korean Teaser" (1:52, HD), the "American Trailer" (1:36, HD), and a "Poster Gallery" (1:39, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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