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Toronto Film Festival: Sympathy For Lady Vengeance

The final chapter of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (the first two being Sympathy for Mister Vengeance and Oldboy), Lady Vengeance seems like the work of an entirely different director. Where Oldboy was rough and visceral in both content and style, Lady Vengeance opts for a slower, more elegant, and perhaps more devastating approach.

Lee Geum-ja has been released from prison after serving a sentence for kidnapping and murdering a young boy. She’s received her parole after becoming and angel: Good behaviour, helping old and sick inmates, and generally showering everyone with love and warmth. Once she walks out the gates, though, her friendly facade is swept away, revealing a coolly calculating woman who cajoles her former cellmates into helping her execute a plan for vengeance.

Park takes his time in revealing the details of Lee’s plans, mixing the present plans with Lee’s past. And almost as soon as the full details are revealed, Park changes the tune, and turns the film into something else entirely.

It’s difficult to say much more than that without revealing the specific plot twists. Suffice it to say, though, that while the revelations are surprising, they’re not of the same punch-to-the-gut nature as Oldboy – at least, not immediately. It can take a while to sink in, but once it does, it leaves a mark. There are no shocks like in Oldboy, but Lady Vengeance is a different beast entirely, driven more by character than plot. The twists are smaller and less catastrophic, but they hurt more.

Gone are Oldboy‘s digital video and jerky camerawork. Park turns in a far more graceful and elegant film – from the opening credits, it is immediately apparent that he has changed his style and received a well-deserved budget increase. Park takes the camera in and out of characters’ heads, indulging in special effects to make metaphors and the abstract more literal; it’s reminiscent of David Fincher’s approach to Fight Club. Park balances the humour and absurdity equally well, pulling off one of the greatest black laughs to be found in a film this year.

Lee Young-ae is stellar in the title role. We’re never quite sure what she’s thinking for most of the movie, and is malleable enough to fit her performance into what we think we know of the plot. Throughout it all, she is graceful and poker-faced while hinting at the turmoil and chaos simmering below, somewhat reminiscent of Julianne Moore. Park has also assembled a wonderful supporting cast, particularly among Lee’s cellmates. Like the rest of the film, they can be comic relief at one moment and serious dramatic elements the next.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a much more mature and reserved film than either of its predecessors. Park has moved beyond his admittedly effective shock tactics in favour of a slow-boiling, almost Hitchcockian tale of loss, betrayal, and, of course, vengeance. If Oldboy was Chan-wook Park’s big splash, Lady Vengeance is his prize-winning synchronized swimming performance.