Today's entry is one of two movies in the series that is part of a trilogy. It is particularly noteworthy for following an installment that gets more critical attention. Frankly, I think Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is massively overrated. It seems strange to me that Hollywood has attempted to remake it so many times since its 2003 release, though its densely choreographed action sequences and emotional bombast elucidate its stateside mainstream appeal. The feted second feature of the Korean filmmaker's vengeance trilogy is celebrated for its grim subject matter, varied cinematic style, composer Jo Yeong-wook's sophisticated score, and emotional nuance.
Lady Vengeance has all of these elements and far surpasses Oldboy in its ability to dazzle and unnerve.
Lady Vengeance focuses on protagonist Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae), a young woman who is released from jail following a long prison sentence for a murder she did not commit. A young boy named Won-mo was tortured and killed by pre-school teacher Mr. Baek (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik), who threatened a similar fate on Lee Geum-ja's newborn daughter if she didn't take the rap. Upon her release, she is bent on revenge.
Though the movie begins with a Christian procession for Geum-ja's release, it promptly dives in to her time at the women's correctional facility. Here, she develops a reputation as an angel. She looks after many of her cellmates, donating a kidney to one of them. She also poisons the prison bully, a rapist who fits the unfortunate prison film stereotype of the predatory, heavy-set butch lesbian inmate. Their back stories are given considerable attention, providing the possibility for the movie to branch out in a number of ways akin to the opening scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. These origins represent most of them to be kind young women of similar station to Geum-ja who were led to criminal activity by an oppressive political system that gave them few options. One such woman is Baek's wife, an abused woman who served time with the lead character. She helps Geum-ja kidnap her husband, spiking his meal with a strong sedative while her friend kills his attendants.
After getting out of prison, Geum-ja reunites with her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young). She is a pre-teen living with a suburban Australian couple (Tony Barry and Anne Cordiner). Mother and daughter encounter a language barrier, but this does little to deter Jenny. Though still harboring some resentment, she prioritizes the chance to reconnect over her lack of proficiency with the Korean language. Geum-ja intends to leave her daughter with her adoptive parents because she does not believe herself worthy of her daughter's love, but relents when she threatens to kill herself with a pair of scissors.
The final hour centers around killing Baek. Geum-ja contacts Detective Choi (Nam Il-Wu), who worked on the Won-mo case. They ransack his home and discover several snuff films of his victims. Their family members are contacted and invited to avenge their children's deaths. Several of them convene with Geum-ja in an abandoned elementary school to determine their course of action. Their socioeconomic disparities are quite interesting. Though Baek teaches at a private school, only one child's stoic grandmother is visibly wealthy. Some of the families come from working-class backgrounds. One couple is now divorced, undoubtedly as the result of the trauma.
Noting Korea's bureaucratic inefficiency, Geum-ja provides the family members with a choice: They can either alert the authorities or take justice into their own hands. The group decides on the latter, taking a picture together as evidence so they cannot later testify against one another. Adorned with plastic coats, each family member walks into an empty classroom where Baek is tied up. They go after him with knives, axes, and other weapons, the grandmother delivering the final blow with a pair of her grandchild's scissors, which she lodges into the back of his neck. Though the violence occurs off-screen, its psychological impact is evident when they bury his body and quietly share a commemorative birthday cake at the bakery Geum-ja works at following the ordeal.
It seems as though killing Baek ultimately offers little release for Geum-ja. She is still haunted by her implication in Won-mo's murder following his murderer's execution and wants her daughter to remain distant from her. She and Jenny share the film's poignant final moment. Holding a white cake that resembles a block of tofu, Geum-ja orders her daughter to "live white" or to be pure and resist many of the evils Geum-ja has had to grapple with. Jenny replies that her mother should aspire toward a similar goal—implying that she should quit punishing herself for the past—moving Geum-ja to tears. The movie closes on the image of her face buried in the cake as her daughter comforts her under a snowy night sky. There is little resolution to this ending, but suggests that Jenny and Geum-ja are forever connected as a result of what they lived through together.