When we first see Jung (Jeong-hwa Eom), the troubled protagonist of South Korean director Eun-jin Bang’s Princess Aurora (2005), she is walking slowly through a shopping mall in a light gray trench coat, as modern-looking and coldly beautiful as her surroundings. Aloof yet observant, self-contained but with a quiet intensity, our Hitchcockian heroine ascends the escalator as the haunting score soars.
In the shopping mall bathroom, Jung witnesses a woman verbally and physically abusing a young girl. Clearly shaken, she dries the girl’s tears, leads her outside and, without warning, returns to the bathroom stall where she brutally stabs and kills the well-heeled abuser. Not five minutes elapse from the beginning of Princess Aurora when we see this first of many ultra-violent murders.
Twenty minutes before the end of the film, we find out how this motley crew of the damned — including a cab driver, a noodle shop waiter, a lawyer, and a fat cat and his mistress — were marked for death rather than randomly chosen by the beautiful killer. One hint: Detective Oh (Sung-keun Moon) who is investigating the murders (and who just happens to be Jung’s ex-husband) recognizes her in surveillance camera footage and realizes that each of the murder victims is connected somehow to the murder of their daughter one year prior. His attempt to stop her before she kills again and her wild murder spree make up the bulk of the film.
Equal parts thriller, clunky melodrama, and female slasher film, Princess Aurora has moments of stylistic beauty and wit but — in terms of its narrative or characters — not much depth. (The name Princess Aurora refers to a cartoon character Jung’s daughter liked and whose image in the form of a sticker she places, as a signature, next to her murder victims.) The implausibility of Jung’s acts and that she gets away with them for so long aren’t tempered by formal cleverness, interesting narrative or compelling character development. The film plods along like a made-for-TV movie from the Lifetime channel and leads inexorably towards a hysterical denouement with little to show for its effort but stacked bodies (albeit creatively murdered) along the way.
Princess Aurora’s little flaws begin to add up. The relationship between Jung and her much older cop ex-husband lacks chemistry or convincing history, and a gratuitous and jarring sex scene that occurs after they briefly reunite during his investigation makes it no more convincing.
The film also relies too much on the frisson of a female killer and the pathos of her murdered child. (A repeated flashback to a home movie showing the little girl singing a song seems like a hackneyed attempt at cheap emotion.) The flashback sequence that pieces together Jung’s reasons for going after her victims echoes a similar one in Hitchcock’s Marnie. But in Marnie’s flashback, which still seems shocking and moving 50 years later, we become privy to early traumatic events that explain how she became a neurotic criminal.
In Princess Aurora, we merely find out what sequence of events led to Jung’s daughter’s disappearance. This withheld information functions more like the missing piece of the plot’s puzzle rather than of Jung’s state of mind. As such, it works to give the film suspense, but what we want to know is how Jung transformed from a mourner to a murderer.
Princess Aurora was released the same year as South Korean sensation Chan-wook Park’s Lady Vengeance, and it’s hard not to compare the two films. Both are about women hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who caused — directly or indirectly — the death of a child; both are stylish and influenced by Hitchcock, De Palma, and Tarantino; and both star actresses who give affecting performances as women at once vulnerable, ferocious, and on the edge of sanity.
But where Chan-wook Park injects a sense of humor into his outlandish films, reveling in style like Tarantino, Eun-jin Bang is often deadly earnest. Without De Palma’s irony or Tarantino/Park’s full-throttle immersion into style for the sake of style, Princess Aurora seems stuck between incompatible modes: stylish ultra-violence and cornball melodrama.
This incongruity leads to some inadvertently hilarious scenes. In one of the most egregious examples near the end of the film, Jung has clearly lost her marbles. She goes to the city dump where her child’s body was discovered a year earlier. With her is the defense attorney from her child’s murder case. She’s just given him the beating of his life, but she’s not done with him yet. Somehow, she secures a forklift, and high in the driver’s seat, suspends the trussed lawyer from a crane. In between psychotic bouts of speaking in her daughter’s childish voice and then shrieking about injustice, she drops the lawyer into a freefall. As everyone ooh’s and aah’s and the lawyer’s head bounces around, she brings him back up and repeats it a few more times. Trust me, it’s like a slapstick scene straight out of a Mel Brooks film. I chuckled each time it happened.
Eun-jin Bang (an actress in films such as Address Unknown), clearly has a knack for suspense and style. Perhaps the first–time writer/director will find a voice and style that cohere and play to her strengths as a director. Princess Aurora, however, seems as juvenile as the cartoon stickers that are the film’s namesake.