So, that article that I posted yesterday about Jewel in the Palace? Please keep that in mind while reading this.
Available…online. Approximately 115 minutes.
It is 2004 and Geum-Ja the Kindhearted is being let out of prison on parole. She is greeted by a group of Christians in Santa outfits, presenting her with a ceremonial get-out-of-jail-and-start-your-life-off-pure tofu cake. They are singing and cheerful as Geum-Ja walks to them, but not so much when she deliberately tips over the cake and insults them. In other words, she is not so kind-hearted.
Lee Geum-Ja had become pregnant when she was nineteen-years-old (or eighteen, Koreans do that thing where everyone is already a year old once born) and was too afraid to go to either of her parents for help. She turned to a teacher from her school for help, a teacher who gave her attention that she may not have realized was inappropriate at the time. It turns out that he was the worst person to go to for help. Not only did he exploit her, he used her to help him kidnap a five-year-old boy and hold him for ransom. And then he killed the boy. When Geum-Ja became a suspect, the teacher forced her to confess to the murder by taking her baby captive. I will admit, that I was not so understanding the first time watching this several years ago as to why she did not just tell the cops that the real killer had been holding her daughter captive, but I am a little more sympathetic to her fears now.
In any case, the detective on the case did not actually believe her, but she was adamant in her confession. Left without another option, the detective chose to accept her confession and helped her in incriminating herself. The public was scandalized, but also taken in by her youth and her angelic beauty. And, while she may have been an innocent and constantly crying little twenty-year-old when she went to prison in 1991, she would milk that reputation for all that it was worth for the next thirteen years.
Geum-Ja reunites with another paroled prison inmate and there is a flashback to the start of their friendship. There are quite a few flashbacks in this movie; some of them inform the viewer about the past, while others are a little misleading. The friend gives her a place to stay, but Geum-Ja is too busy thinking of other things to show gratitude. She is thinking about vengeance. Vengeance upon the man who actually committed the murder, vengeance upon the man who made her confess, vengeance upon the man who stole her-then baby daughter from her. And she had started her plan thirteen years ago. She dreams of the man, a dog with the face of a man. She dreams of taking him to a snowy cliff alone and shooting him in the head and having the bullet penetrate his entire body. Vengeance will be hers.
But before that, she has to find her daughter and apologize for giving her up to that monster of a man all of those years ago. And even before that, go to the dead boy’s parents and cut off one of her fingers in front of them as penitence for her crimes. They do not particularly the gesture…or the blood that she gets on their table and floor. All of the money that has she earned in prison goes to reattaching that finger. To get more money, Geum-Ja gets a job making cakes. She even strikes up a bit of a casual relationship with one of the workers at the cake shop, noting that he is the same age as the murdered boy would have been and the same age that she was when she went to prison.
Geum-Ja meets another friend from prison to whom she had donated a kidney. The request that Geum-Ja gives to this friend and her husband is a little less clear-cut than asking for a place to live. As the rest of her plan goes forth and more people are shown to be involved, it soon becomes clear to the audience and to Geum-Ja that this is no longer just about her quest for personal vengeance. Her motives may be obvious, but her plans are not. And, eventually, her motives themselves end up also changing a little as her now teenage daughter becomes involved and the story is revealed to be bigger than just one woman’s vengeance.
This movie is the third movie in the “Vengeance Trilogy”, though it is connected to the other two mainly just by the theme of vengeance, so you can watch this one without having seen the others. There are other connections, though, as the teacher uses the same “good kidnapping vs. bad kidnapping” rationalization that was used in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. There may also be some connections to Oldboy beyond casting, but I don’t remember. In terms of style and tone, it is somewhere in between the sparseness of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance that so many found boring and the overstuffed and pseudo-operatic hyperactivity of Oldboy that (among other things) I outright hated. Perhaps it is somewhat closer to Oldboy in style, but it holds back. There is more of a dreamlike quality even beyond the actual dream sequence.
I could talk about the motivations of various characters, a few possible plot holes, a couple of the more disturbing scenes, and maybe touch upon the awkward use of English in parts of the movie. But those are a kind of spoilery. Instead, I will talk about Geum-Ja and Jang-Geum.
Sixteen months before this film was released in South Korea, the final episode of Jewel in the Palace aired. I talked about it in my previous article, focusing particularly on the character of Jang-Geum in the second half. That was the last piece of work that Lee Young-ae had done as an actress before Lady Vengeance. And Lady Vengeance was her last performance in film or television until 2011 and her last major on-screen performance until 2017. Maybe this movie took a toll on her, but I think that she just had other interests after this. While Lee had worked with director Park Chan-wook before in Joint Security Area five years earlier, Lee was most likely best known at that time for playing Jang-Geum. Park must have known this. I do not know whether Lee was Park’s first choice for the lead role in making Lady Vengeance, but if Geum-Ja were simply supposed to be some sort of duplicitous and vengeful femme fatale, there were other South Korean actresses who could have been cast. If Lee was not the first choice, then there must have been multiple edits to the script, because there is no way that anyone else could have played the role of Geum-Ja, not the way that it was presented. On paper, Lee may have seemed to be completely inappropriate for the role, given what she was best known for at the time. Yet, the decision is not simply a matter of playing against type; her work on the show and her image informed her role in the movie. Whether or not the movie itself is good (I like it), the role was perfect for Lee Young-ae. And since it not only arrived upon the heels of Jewel in the Palace, but was the last thing Lee starred in until last year, it is almost impossible to cleanly separate the two roles if one has seen both.
A simple look at the first few minutes of the movie makes it clear that Park was milking Lee’s image for all that it was worth. People are shown being happy for her. She is helpful around the prison, coming to the aid of other prisoners in big ways and small ways. She inspires others with her speeches on redemption. She is called Geum-Ja the Kindhearted. Later on, the movie really pushes that sense by portraying her in a completely unrealistic light as if she is some sort of heavenly being. But all of that is a lie. And not like Fight Clockwork unreliable narrator lie. The movie is upfront about the fact that she is gaining favors with others or simply manipulating them into helping her later on; putting on an act so that she can be released on good behavior. And the over-the top stylistic presentation is shown to be a joke. Once she is on the outside, she is often aloof, mean, sexual, violent, and still manipulative. All of these things must have been jarring towards those who had watched her as Jang-Geum for fifty-four hours. This was all purposeful.
At first glance, there may seem to be no similarities between Geum-Ja and Jang-Geum other than their names. Yet, there are so many. Both suffered greatly and wrongly. Both were determined and willful. Both sacrificed for others. Both are good at cooking. Both had been helpful towards others, which brought them friends and allies. Both harbor secrets for reasons both obvious and not so obvious. And both were motivated, in some respects, by vengeance and guilt. One could make the stretch that, in confronting a child-killer, Geum-Ja retained the moral high ground, as Jang-Geum did. I wouldn’t make that stretch, but one could. In a sense, Geum-Ja is not the opposite of Jang-Geum, but an extremely twisted version of Jang-Geum. Maybe a parody of Jang-Geum, though not really. Thanks to a great mistake in her youth, a relatively innocent Geum-Ja was thrust into darkness. Her innocence was soon shattered and all that was left was a manipulative shell. While Jang-Geum inspired others to do good, Geum-Ja brought others into her quest for vengeance, bringing down other innocent and not-so-innocent people into the world of violence, just as she had been brought down.
This is maybe a roundabout way of saying that the “American” remake of the film starring Charlize Theron that was thrown about a few years ago would have been a terrible terrible terrible idea. I guess that the failure of the Oldboy remake put a stop to that.
Her stint in prison may be presented in a darkly gleeful manner, but the rest of the movie is less so. That said, there are still stylistic flourishes and a few rather dramatic moments that are presented in rather odd ways, but I feel like they more bring focus to the emotional content rather than undermine them or to simply wow the audience. Ahem. And sometimes the flourishes help to soften the emotional impact because this movie gets kind of dark.
Geum-Ja is constantly looking for redemption, but she knows that she cannot achieve it without blood, both her blood and the blood of the murderer. She wants redemption on her own terms or not at all. That is why she rejects the tofu cake in the beginning. It is arguable that her heartless killer persona in the outside is no more genuine than her angelic savior persona was while in prison. That thought may be reassuring towards those who see her as Jang-Geum, but that cannot justify the acts of murder and torture, even upon evil people. And she knows that her hands were already unclean when she agreed to take part in the kidnapping, and that her quest for vengeance is not without a hint of irony. She is desperate for forgiveness and to be worthy of such, but there is a sense that she knows (particularly with a later revelation) that she does not deserve it and that it will never come anyways.
There are two versions (that I know of ) of this movie. One is just the regular version and the other one where everything except for a few key items turns to black and white towards the last act of the movie. There is probably a thematic and symbolic reason for it and not simply to temper all of the red in the final act.
Those who could not sit through Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but loved Oldboy may enjoy this. If you have seen neither, you still may enjoy it. If you had never even heard of Jewel in the Palace because you completely ignored my article from yesterday, then you may still enjoy this movie. In any case recommend it highly.
WTF ASIA 34: In Love We Trust (China: 2008, Approx. 116 minutes).
Free on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 35: Dharavi (India: 1993, Approx. 116 minutes).
Dagnabbit, Amazon. Well, it’s on Einthusan.