UTG’s 31 Days Of Halloween: ‘Sympathy For Lady Vengeance’

Lady Vengeance

Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the UTG staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of features and special announcements we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.

Now in its fourth year, 31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring feature that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this column is to supply every UTG reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you’ll follow along at home.

This year, the entire 31 Days series is dedicated to the memory of our friend, Justin Proper. We wouldn’t have a film department without him, and he specifically helped pioneer our involvement in the horror genre. Rest in peace, JP.

Lady Vengeance
Day 2: Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005)

Revenge is a dish best served Korean. No one fucks up other people like the Korean cinema. Lady Vengeance’s second half probably holds the largest promise of the goriest, meanest kind of revenge. But now that I’ve rewatched it years later I realize it masterfully fooled me with one of the oldest tricks in the filmmaking book. It duped me because I remember just the nastiest torture scene at the end. But it’s not there. It’s all implied off-screen, in the edit. The visuals of the movie can be surprisingly tame compared with what my mind filled in.

And there’s a perfect reason for that. Apologies in advance, I’m mostly going to talk about the second half of the film–starting an hour in–but I think I’ll be sufficiently vague for people who haven’t yet seen it.

Lady Vengeance is about a woman who goes to prison for over a decade because she was manipulated into confessing to a murder she did not commit. When she is released…well, she’s gonna get her some damn revenge. It’s the third and final movie of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, and arguably the least well-known (Oldboy being the flagship of the three).

The kind of horror Lady Vengeance serves up is uncommon. I’m not particularly afraid of the lead character dying, or a monster, or of any kind of existential dread. But I’m still horrified at what I’m seeing, and more importantly, feeling, about the human condition. And the reason is that the best revenge movies aren’t actually about the physical act or visceral thrill of pain of revenge…they’re about grief. It’s about someone causing another so much grief that the only way to get any kind of catharsis is to try to cause the same amount. They require you to go to the darkest places, and being able to see the release from that allows for emotional hills and valleys other genres don’t have room for. If I were one of the parents in this film, I can see myself in a similar moral place, and, horribly…I’m not sure I wouldn’t make the same decisions they make. The idea is so human that it doesn’t rely on stupidity or psychopathy for something so dark to be undertaken by good, normal people.

Lady Vengeance 3

There’s a scene in the movie in which someone is tortured, and it’s about 45 minutes long. In my memory it was a very explicit scene, but rewatching it, I realize the actual torture is never shown. One by one, we see people go into the room with resolve to do this horrible act, and then it cuts to them leaving, a wholly different person, after having done something awful. It skips the act altogether. Or earlier in that sequence, it intercuts between an unaware pair of parents before they’re shown a video of their child’s murder…and, silently, after.

The point being, it’s a movie all about reaction rather than the moment–which is perfectly fitting for revenge–and that punches me in the gut a way that no closeup of an eyeball-gouge would. The whole movie does this; it finds the human in the gruesome, and makes sure you never forget about it.

What strikes me about Korean movies and Lady Vengeance in particular is that they somehow hold onto a firm sense of whimsy and levity, no matter where the movie goes. And Park Chan-wook uses this in every aspect of the film: playful framing (pulling the bloody knife out of the hands of the first couple from the edge of frame), stilted and caricaturistic blocking sometimes (someone dropping an enormous pile of stuff in surprise, then just staring), and of course the performances themselves. And thank God he does this, because we’re already in the pits of Hell with some of the human darkness being presented; it’s wonderful to smile a little to remember we’re human, and it makes us care even more.

When people think about revenge as a genre, their minds jump to the pulp: Blood, gunshots, chases. But when you boil down why we like revenge movies, it’s actually about simple human feelings. It appeals to our sense of (in)justice, to commiserating about grief, and our “what if” minds. It’s what Lady Vengeance gets so, so right: the human element over the flashier pieces (not to say it isn’t stylish, though; sometimes it gets beautifully buried in its own style). Because it lives in Oldboy’s shadow this is an often-forgotten film outside of cinephile circles, but now that I rewatch it, it makes me wonder if a lot of more visually explicit films have been getting it wrong this whole time…

Today’s feature was written by guest contributor Aaron Moorhead, the co-director of Resolution (2012), Spring (2014) and the V/H/S: Viral segment titled “Bonestorm.”

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