Lady Vengeance plays like an urban revenge fantasy co-directed by Luis Buñuel and the young John Woo. Filled with surrealistic moments, off-putting humor and an anti-religious subtext, director Park Chanwook's film is exciting, nerve-wracking and utterly original.
In its plot outline, however, Lady Vengeance seems almost banal, as if it were a riff on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. The picture opens with lovely Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) being released from prison after 13 years, sent there for murdering a five-year-old she had kidnapped. It turns out, however, that Lee had a partner in the kidnapping plot, a male teacher (Choi Min-sik) who actually committed the killing, and then blackmailed her to take the fall when he threatened to murder Lee's out-of-wedlock child. During her years in the slammer, Lee has supposedly undergone some sort of religious conversion, but she's actually been planning how to track down and eliminate her partner in crime.
In order to do this, Lee enlists the help of her cell-mates, all of whom are introduced and given backstories in short, punchy scenes. But when Lee finally captures her man and discovers he is actually a serial killer of small children, the story takes a fascinating, and utterly compelling, turn that won't be disclosed here. It's enough to say that the last third of the picture is gut-wrenchingly emotional, truly bizarre and thoroughly satisfying.
Working with gifted cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, director Park has created a visually ravishing film in which dream sequences and fractured time elements help to create an otherworldly feel. Drifting through all this is Lee, whose blank-faced beauty hides her desperate desire for revenge and redemption. As enacted by Lee Young-ae, who moves effortlessly from sweet-faced innocence to utter menace, the character is a compelling screen presence whose ultimate "triumph" is bitter as day-old tea.
Ultimately, of course, this is director Park's vision, the third in his revenge trilogy, which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. Structured as critiques of Korean society, the films, if Lady Vengeance is typical, can still be seen as formally rigorous works filled with exciting technique and an oddball sense of storytelling that is truly unique. Far from being culturally specific, Lady Vengeance is a violent soap opera with a universal theme: Be careful what you wish for.