Ma’am, there’s no such thing as a perfect person.
—Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi)
With his Vengeance Trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and now Lady Vengeance—director Chan-wook Park takes three perspectives on the theme of revenge. The first portrayed the spiral of vengeance as all-consuming, the second suggested that forgetting might be the only way to escape the pull of vengeance. Lady Vengeance offers its characters what was missing in the previous films: the hope of redemption.
Freed from prison at the film’s outset, Lee Geum-Ja (Yeong-ae Lee) was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a young boy 13 1/2 years ago, when she was just 19. Inside, she “found religion” and dedicated herself to her fellow inmates, gaining a reputation as the “kindly angel” both inside the prison and in the media, which helped secure her release.
Once outside, Geum-Ja dons blood-red eye shadow and an impassive demeanor. We learn that she had been framed by Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, who played Dae-su Oh in Oldboy), a schoolteacher who took her in as a pregnant runaway. Mr. Baek threatened to kill her infant daughter if she refused to confess. But her incarceration only gave her time to plot her revenge: lush flashbacks show her dreaming of a trussed-up Mr. Baek whimpering as she puts a gun in his eye, pauses to savor the moment, and pulls the trigger. Cut to the “kindly angel,” a smile forming on her sleeping face.
The kidnapping plot echoes that of Park’s earlier film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (indeed, the original translation of the Korean title, Chinjeolhan geumjassi, was Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). But Geum-Ja’s feelings of guilt complicate the later work. Her revenge against Mr. Baek is not an end in itself, but a step toward her forgiveness by the child Won-Mo (Ji-tae Yu), who died at Mr. Baek’s hands. Her confession delayed the deliverance of justice, a burden she now takes up as her own.
She is defined by her need for revenge, but unlike the trilogy’s other protagonists, not yet consumed by it. Park’s earlier films focused on the futility of revenge, its unstoppable corruptive force. Lady Vengeance proposes atonement as superior to vengeance—though it delivers brutal vengeance as well. When Geum-Ja breaks down in front of the murdered boy’s parents, hysterically cutting off her own finger as penance, you know revenge will not alleviate her guilt. Revenge is for the living. She thinks she needs the forgiveness of the dead.
The entrance of Geum-Ja’s daughter, Jenny (Yea-young Kwon), adds still more weight to her burden. The girl becomes a symbol of the innocence forever lost to her mother. But the preadolescent Jenny is complex, a person in her own right. Adopted by an Australian couple (Tony Barry and Anne Cordiner), she has come to resent her mother for abandoning her, even planning at one point to kill her if she ever met her (this suggests that the desire for vengeance is not dictated by age or a single sort of acculturation). And by film’s end, it’s unclear whether Geum-Ja’s reconciliation with her daughter offers any redemption at all.
Mr. Baek’s fate is also increasingly complicated. After Geum-Ja arms herself with a specially forged gun, and mentally prepares herself by shooting a small dog, she finds Mr. Baek, who conveniently reveals himself to be even more evil than previously thought. And so Park’s question about the efficacy and morality of personal retribution expands into a study of collective vengeance. But even as Lady Vengeance’s violence and desire for retribution are in some sense diffused through this plot development, she is also plainly troubled by her desire, and refocuses her energies on Jenny.
Though this suggests a turn away from Mr. Baek, the movie was never much about him anyway. It is instead about Geum-Ja’s several transformations, her performances to get what she wants, and her discovery of what she doesn’t want, as well as her search for a way back to her 19-year-old self, before the kidnapping, before prison, but with her daughter. And so Lady Vengeance is about forgiveness, by and for the living.