Park Chan-wook has had a fascination with revenge in his recent films. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the third in a trilogy of vengeance films following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. The films have been compared in tone and violence level with the Kill Bill films and Fight Club. Lady Vengeance continues his exploration of the subject he sees as a key issue on the mind of Korean society. But he discovered that after making the first two films on vengeance, “I realized that the overload of rage, hatred, and violence became poison and made my soul into a barren land.” In Lady Vengeance, Park is trying to show vengeance as an “act of redemption.” The story he tells brings a new dimension to our understanding of revenge.
At 19, Lee Geum-ja went to jail for her part in a kidnapping and murder of a five year old child. While in jail, she comes under the influence of a Christian minister who helps her invoke the angel within herself. She is kind to other prisoners as one who protects them and helps them. For many she is known as the Angel. She is also known as the Witch, a title she inherits after she slowly murders the abusive prisoner who had held that title. That dichotomy continues through the film as she is at times kind-hearted and at other times wicked.
During her thirteen years in jail, Geum-ja plans her revenge on her accomplice in the crime, Mr. Baek, the real criminal; Geum-ja is a victim in her own right. As soon as she is released, she rejects the minister’s encouragement so she can get to the work of extracting justice on Baek. With the help of former prisoners who owe her for her protection in jail, she begins the plot to find and capture Baek and deal with him in a way to provide vengeance.
(some spoilers follow)
When she has captured Baek, she, along with the detective who investigated her case, gather the parents of all the children Baek has killed and show them tapes he had made while he killed them. Whipped into an emotional frenzy, she offers the parents the option of turning him over to the courts, or having a more personal way of dealing with him. Their discussion and actions bring about what seems in many ways a satisfying justice, even if we may not approve of the process or the result.
The film is really about how we can move beyond our past to a new life. Geum-ja tells one of the prisoners that the way to get through prison is to die and be reborn over and over. As the film winds its way through the process of revenge, we discover that for Geum-ja, this is the first step that will allow her to find a way to new life. Even though she has discovered something of a new life in Christianity while in prison, she must set that aside to free herself from the stain she cannot forgive in herself. So when she exits the prison and the pastor offers her a cake of tofu as a symbol of living white (that is, pure) from now on, she dumps it on the ground.
Later after the vengeance is complete, we begin to see the new life starting to emerge. As all the families are sharing a meal, someone begins singing “Happy Birthday.” It just seemed appropriate to them – and this was for them a day of new birth. This theme is carried even further in the closing scene (more spoilers) as Geum-ja presents her long lost daughter with a large tofu cake, telling her to always live white. The daughter tastes the tofu, and offers some to Geum-ja on a finger, but Geum-ja doesn’t take it. It is as if she is still refusing to accept forgiveness. But then she buries her face in the cake as the voice over (a female narrator, possibly Geum-ja or her daughter) says, “I always liked Geum-ja. Farewell Geum-ja.” (end spoilers)
In many ways, the film just feels right about the closure that can come from revenge. It makes it seem as though just getting that revenge frees us from the rage we may carry. But at the same time, the Christian message is far different than that presented in Lady Vengeance. Geum-ja feels the need to atone. She even says, “But if you committed a sin, you have to make an atonement for that sin. Atonement, do you know what that means? Big Atonement for big sins. Small Atonement for small sins.” But the Christian message is that atonement has already been made. We do not atone for our own sins through revenge. We rely of the gift of God that comes in the cross of Christ. There is where we find our new life. It is in the cross that we are born again to “live white.”