Sympathy for Lady Vengeance ★★★★

Well, here's a conundrum. I've rated Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance a 4 and Oldboy a 3.5, and Lady Vengeance falls right between them. I don't love the former quite enough to bump it up, and don't dislike the latter enough to bump it down, so Lady Vengeance gets a score that doesn't quite tell the whole story by just looking at my ratings.

It's a film of two halves (much like ...Mr. Vengeance), but instead of a narrative split (the parallel stories of Ryu and Park), Lady Vengeance's two halves are of two disparate styles. The first is closer to Oldboy - hyperstylized and more than a little humorous - while the second is reminiscent of the dark and brooding ...Mr. Vengeance. I'd like to say it totally works here, that it lulls you into a false sense of security, given how entertaining Oldboy was, and then clobbers you with the emotional hammer of ...Mr. Vengeance, but something doesn't quite jibe.

It almost works, and it certainly is skillfully made, but such a jarring shift left me a little disoriented when the hammer started to fall. As much as I enjoyed the first half, with its clever use of alternating POVs of Geum-ja's fellow inmates filling in her backstory with bordering-on-slapstick humor, when the tone shifted to the darker style of the second half, it colored the personalities of Geum-ja and Baek as a bit superficial. I felt I didn't know either of them well enough to get as emotionally involved as I could have been. For such a visually impressive film, it's not a deal-breaker, and I applaud the symmetry Park Chan-wook was attempting, but it dulled the blow of the finale by keeping the characters a little more distant than the two previous entries in the 'Vengeance Trilogy.'

Complaints out of the way, let the gushing commence. Out of the trilogy, Lady Vengeance is easily the most engaging. While I might have been skeptical with the previous two films, here, Park Chan-wook has won me over with his direction. It feels like every third shot is either from a crazy angle, a jump-cut to a either a quick punchline or a gut-punch of a shot, or a refreshingly calm and serene close-up. Normally, I'd take this as showing off, but it's more than welcome here to balance out the sacrifices made in empathic development. It's gorgeous. Secondly, the acting is a good mix of fanservice (so many actors returning from the previous two installments!) and commendable performances. Finally, the score...hands down, the best of the trilogy - composer Choi Seung-hyun's classical flavors give the story such a weight and importance, and they're mixed into scenes perfectly; both in volume and in emotional accentuation.

Despite my misgivings about Park Chan-wook's emphasis on style and subject matter at the expense of a more cohesive narrative, Lady Vengeance concludes the trilogy extremely well. All three films do a fine job showing the ultimately hollow rewards vengeance bears, and all three show this in different ways (...Mr. Vengeance about the innocents hurt by revenge, Oldboy about being the target of vengeance, Lady Vengeance about being the seeker). Lady Vengeance constantly propels the story forward, having the protagonist being the orchestrator, and, though there are characterization issues in such a driven story, the technical merits go a long way in making up for any of its narrative issues.

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