Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a pretty impressive pulp drama that nevertheless stayed within its own generic boundaries; its delusions of grandeur never seemed to get the better of it. Things starting taking a change for the worse with Oldboy, yet the formal dazzle and narrative ingenuity of the whole thing made me overlook what was at its essence both a pathetic little-boy fantasy and a 14-year-old’s school project rendition of Oedipus (with “literary” referents like incest and tongue-slicing, who needs character shades or emotional plausibility?). Yet the third in his woebegone vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, seems to have unveiled this butt-naked emperor for the opportunistic drama queen that he is.
And judging by the downright gleeful standing ovation he got at the New York Film Festival the week before last, following his repellent third installment, those-who-don’t-do-Hong-Sang-soo seem to think of him as the preeminent Korean director working today. He is truly an international sensation, Tarantino-approved (a la Wong Kar-wai, way back when Chungking was expressing its way around art-houses), and his every shot reveals itself as something a little more ornate than you might have expected. Yet why does this self-consciously operatic self-made misfit auteur strike me as being one of the most morally hollow filmmakers to reach such wide critical acclaim in quite some time? Well, Lady Vengeance lays it all horribly bare.
Admittedly, the new film unfolds with a thrilling dexterity, folding back in on itself in tantalizing ways, revealing both enough information and enshrouding the entire film in enough shadow at once with every single plot turn. As in Oldboy, he’s a master of withholding crucial information without driving you mad or making you feel overly manipulated. Yet how does he manage this? He’s a preeminent distracter…i.e., no need to question the very questionable actions onscreen when there’s something bright and shining and spangly in the corner that your eye can drift to. Hence, when Lady Vengeance’s (and Oldboy’s to a lesser degree) modus operandi crystallizes at the climax, and Park unleashes some of the most distasteful imagery I’ve seen in many a moon (violence towards very young children, if you must know), he’s already got you by the testicles, squeezing so tight that yes, when the time comes for a big chuckle a few minutes later, you can do nothing but be thankful for the release. Following all this mayhem, which leads to what is supposed to be a fascinating moral question about violent retribution but what once again comes across like something a high-school debate team might discuss, Park leaves his final ten minutes as “contemplation.”
And how easy it is to criticize Tarantino while embracing his latest trendy place-setter. Kill Bill (1 and surely, 2) has more moral concern in any given five minutes than any of Park’s flashier (believe it or not!) films, most definitively in his differing use of children. Look at the difference in mother-daughter relationship portrayals between Kill Bill 2 and Lady Vengeance, the latter of which makes a mockery of parental roles. Most importantly, Tarantino knows the limitations of the worlds he creates, and his pulp epic stayed firmly entrenched within those rules. Park seriously thinks he’s making profound “statements” on the “nature” of “violence”, and judging by the rapturous acceptance he’s received, so do many of his viewers. Never has a single tear, perfectly lit and framed, seemed so disingenuous. Lady Vengeance revels in sadism, rubs your face in degraded imagery, begs you to enjoy every moment, and then tries to pass itself off as an “examination” of violence. Well what else would you expect from the culmination of a trilogy that Park himself has admitted was done only as a rebuttal to critics who triple-dog-dared him to make three revenge movies without running out of ideas?