친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

A Moho Films Production
Distribution: CJ Entertainment
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Revenge Thriller
Running Time: 112 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2005/Jul/29

WITH 이영애 (Lee Young-Ae) as Geum-Ja; 최민식 (Choi Min-Shik) as Mr. Baek; 권예영 (Kwon Ye-Young) as Jenny; 김시후 (Kim Si-Hoo) as Geun-Shik; 남일우 (Nam Il-Woo) as Chief Choi; 김병욱 (Kim Byeong-Wook) as Jeon; 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo) as Mr. Jang; 이승신 (Lee Seung-Shin) as Park Yi-Jung; 김부선 (Kim Bu-Seon) as Woo So-Young; 라미란 (Ra Mi-Ran) as Oh Soo-Hee;

CREW Director 박찬욱 (Park Chan-Wook) Executive Producer 이태헌 (Lee Tae-Heon) 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) | Screenplay 정서경 (Jung Seo-Gyeong) 박찬욱 (Park Chan-Wook) | Director of Photography 정정훈 (Jung Jung-Hoon) Lighting 박현원 (Park Hyun-Won) Editor 김재범 (Kim Jae-Beom) 김상범 (Kim Sang-Beom) Music 조영욱 (Jo Young-Wook) Art Direction 조화성 (Jo Hwa-Seong) Costumes 조상경 (Jo Sang-Gyeong) Action Choreography 권승구 (Kwon Seung-Gu) | Assistant Director 석민우 (Seok Min-Woo)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 20,483,998,393 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 3,119,807
BUDGET: 7,500,000,000 Won

Photo ⓒ Moho Films, CJ Entertainment

SYNOPSIS

This is the story of LEE Geum-ja, a beautiful and deadly young woman, half angel and half devil, as serene as she is furious. After going through a hard time, Geum-ja found herself sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for murder. After being released from prison, she is on a mission of vengeance. Geum-ja sets about putting her precise plan in motion. [KoBiz]

REVIEW

죄 (罪, SIN)
Snow falling on the streets of Seoul, it's night. A dark alley lit only by a few feeble lights, the cold carpet of snow covering the concrete. We see the shadow of a woman running towards the darkness, with her high heels and impossibly chic accessories creating a splendid figure. A young man half her age, fresh like a rose, is following her, singing. He wasn't even born when it was a hit in 1964, but he still sings Nam Hae'Il's 빨간 구두 아가씨 (The Girl with the Red Shoes) as if he had that song running through his veins all his life.

Geun-Shik: 똑똑똑, 구두소리, 빨간 구두 아가씨... (ddok ddok ddok, the sound of shoes.... the girl with the red shoes)

Why is this woman running, nervous and full of anxiety? Wasn't this what she always wanted, what she dreamed of during those cold nights in prison, what she fought for all that time? Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-Ae), now over 30, spent almost half her life pursuing a dream, that of revenge. Cold and brutal revenge, against someone who ruined her life. She prepared everything in detail, from picking allies helping her mission to trying to get rid of the guilt which darkened her thoughts for those long 13 years in prison. She had to do it, because that man made her a sinner. Lee Geum-Ja, that stunningly beautiful, angelic like-presence, a sinner. A woman who killed a six year old little kid, an innocent life ruined because of someone who never looked like the kind of woman you would ever imagine doing something so cruel, so terrible, so tragic.

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He must have felt like a sinner, when young Park Chan-Wook looked at the box office results of his first creature, 1992's 달은...해가 꾸는 꿈 (The Moon is the Sun's Dream). What did he do to deserve that, didn't he work hard like everyone else? Was it too personal a film, too much of 'his' story to appeal to people? One of the chapters in Park's recently released book 몽타주 (Montage) opens with a quote from Ludwig Van Beethoven, saying how becoming a philosopher at 28 was not much of a good thing for someone so young. Park never became a philosopher, but those three years at Sogang University studying philosophy were important to create the director he has become today. During his days at Sogang, Park was part of the 서강영화공동체 (Sogang Film Community), where he developed his love for genre cinema and b-movies. He was the youngest on the set, when he debuted in Chungmuro at the age of 25, working as assistant director for Yoo Young-Shik's 1988 film 깜동 (Kkamdong). A year later, director Kwak Jae-Yong -- yes, THAT Kwak Jae-Yong, who would go on to direct 엽기적인 그녀 (My Sassy Girl) -- made a proposal to Park, to write together the script for his next film.

비오는 날 수채화 (A sketch of a Rainy Day) not only was a flop, but it became Kwak's last film, until he picked up the megaphone once again a decade later. But for Park, reality was a little different: he just got married, and the situation in Chungmuro was too hard to bear for a young assistant director, so he finally took the important decision of becoming a 월급쟁이 (salaryman). Working left and right to make ends meet, Park would translate, design posters, print publicity ads and similar things, but he also spent that time writing his first script (an adaptation of an original story by Kim Yong-Tae, an old friend of his from Sogang University), for what would become his debut feature, 'The Moon is the Sun's Dream'. Park wanted to cast one of his favorites, Choi Jae-Sung from the hit TV Drama 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn), but he was never able to. His lead was in fact popular singer Lee Seung-Cheol, who made his debut in the film. Park was hoping his popularity with teenager girls would help the film succeed, but alas it wasn't the case. Although he put all his love for b-movies and genre Cinema to use in the film, it couldn't escape cult status, and only ended up selling less than 10,000 tickets. All his efforts went in vain, and when you have a family to support, that becomes close to committing a sin.

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속죄 (贖罪, ATONEMENT)
13 years in prison. Geum-Ja lost her innocence and playful charm because of a man. She was forced to take the blame in his place, had to leave back her daughter, and spend the prime of her life confined inside four walls, in the company of con(wo)men, people who ate their husbands for breakfast, and even North Korean spies. The price she had to pay to play a role in Professor Baek's (Choi Min-Shik) twisted game of greed became her own way of atoning for all her past sins. She became interested in religion, thanks to the spiritual guidance of Mr. Jeon (Kim Byung-Ok); her ability to make delicious cakes out of the shabby ingredients provided by the prison shocked everyone; she helped her cellmates become better people, feeding the weak and helping the poor. People called her 친절한 금자씨 (the kind Geum-Ja), and she quickly gained followers, almost forming a cult. She was like an angel from heaven. You could pray for years and nothing would happen, but she was there. Real. Ready to listen to you, make your dreams come true, make your life a little better, comfort you when you were down.

Geum-Ja: 어디 계신가요? 나와 주세요. 저 여기있어요~ 이렇게 천사를 부르는 행위. 이것을 바로 우리는 기도라고 말하는것입니다. ('Where are You? Please come out. I'm here!' calling angels like that, that's exactly what we call praying)

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With a family to feed, and just a shabby job at a film company, Park had time to reflect: about what film represented in his career, what it meant to him as a fan, and especially how he could make a stable profession out of that. He spent most of the mid 90s contributing for several magazines, like 'Video Movie', 'TV Channel' and even film mag 'Screen'. While the country was going crazy over overblown Hollywood blockbusters like Cliffhanger and several of Guvna Ah-nohd's flicks, Park would focus his writing on little known gems, underappreciated genre cinema and obviously b-movies, one of his true loves. He began to build a loyal fanbase who appreciated his new outlook on cinema, far removed from the distant prose of film critics and the humourless blabber of tabloid reviewers. When he grouped together a collection of essays and reviews in his book 영화보기의 은밀한 매력-비디오 드롬 (The enchanting beauty of watching films - Videodrome), a new chapter in his life as a film person opened. The film went quickly out of print, so much now it's hard to find it even in used book stores. Park wasn't like the other critics, he didn't pretend to stand on a pedestal and judge movies for us ignorant masses, nor he acted like he knew everything. His love for those films, or film itself, transcended the pages of the book, and made his name the object of cult amongst film 'Mania'.

After the publication of the book in 1994, Park started preparing his return to Chungmuro with 3인조 (Trio), his first film in five years. A wild mixture of road movie tropes, gangster comedy cliches, b-movie craftsmanship and the visual allure he would later exploit to perfection, the film had everything going for it. Park cast former 하이틴스타 (Late Teen Star) Kim Min-Jong along with one of the top film stars of the 90s, Lee Kyung-Young, a sure formula for success. Written by Park's good friend Lee Mu-Young, a former pop columnist cum DJ who would go on to work with Park for several years, 'Trio' put on screen all of Park's love for Cinema: that hilarious but mean streak, the references to a ton of films and pop culture phenomena (he had Tom Waits in the soundtrack, come on!), the tricky visual gags, the back to basics approach to filmmaking, stripped from the boundaries genres create, Park's second film was a time bomb of creativity ready to explode. Except it never did... released in the midst of the 비트 (Beat) 'craze', the film was only able to rank in 30,000 or so tickets, another failure for Park. 300,000 might not seem a big figure, but that was the score of Kim Sung-Soo's film in Seoul, the only big (for the time) hit of the year until Song Neung-Han's crazy 넘버 3 (No. 3) came close to that in August. Korean Cinema was about to resurrect from the ashes of its past, with new directors emerging all around the industry, and finally even commercial films having an impact against Hollywood.

What could Park do? He loved films, but films were never kind to him. He lived this purgatory during the 90s writing for several magazines, and even working part time at a video store. You've heard of video rental clerks becoming directors, but how many of them had to go back to that after directing two films? Park Chan-Wook was one of the first directors who started a trend which found its most profound explosion in recent years, that of 장르 위반 (Betrayal of Genre). Of course he had a lot of illustrious predecessors, like Lee Myung-Se, but that of using elements from different genres to form his own unique world was not something you could consider popular in the Chungmuro of the late 90s. Park made 순수영화 (Pure Cinema).

Cinema which went back to the basics, with that excitement of the early silent films, that fascination with visuals and movement, that fresh mix of emotions somewhat lost in the increasingly 'literary' (dialogue-based) world of Cinema. Watching 'Trio' for the umpteenth time the other day, I not only felt invigorated by how much love for Cinema Park expresses through this little flick, but also how unique a world he creates through this film. It might not have been perfectly balanced, the script certainly had its number of flaws, and I'd hesitate to call the acting excellent. But it had a tremendous charm, a vitality absent from other commercial Korean films of the period, on top of the kind of irreverence arthouse films could only dream of.

But they say you always get at least three chances in life, and Park met with the project of his career through a combination of different issues. Myung Film was preparing one of the most ambitious projects in Chungmuro history, a film about the North/South divide set in the DMZ at Panmunjeom. The film took years to produce, but the success of actioner 쉬리 (Shiri) sped up the process. Top TV stars Lee Young-Ae and Lee Byung-Heon were on board, and an actor who built an increasingly large fanbase thanks to his cult supporting roles in several films was tasting his first leading role after a half decade of impressive performances. That year he would shock the industry with the success of Kim Jee-woon's comedy 반칙왕 (The Foul King), and become one of the top stars in the country. He was Song Kang-Ho. Now all they needed was a director, and that man turned out to be Park Chan-Wook. Someone who shot low-budget films closer to the 'B-movie' culture was offered the directing chair for a multimillion dollar project, full of huge stars, spending huge money recreating Panmunjeom and with one of the most controversial outlines in recent memory. If this situation reminds you of a little film called Citizen Kane and its director Orson Welles, I don't blame you.

Up to that point, the rule had always been to portray North Koreans in a negative light. In certain periods of Korean film history it was forced upon filmmakers by law, in others years of propaganda and counter-education indirectly pushed directors to follow it. But 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) was different: it featured North Korean soldiers as real people, victim of the ironic tragedy which divided the nation, unable to 'cross the barrier' built by propaganda over the years, even after crossing the physical one. The film was a monster success, making Park one of the most popular directors in the country, opening the world of Korean cinema to the International audience even more. If he had committed any 'sin' in the first few years of his career, Park certainly atoned for all that, suffering through a decade of failure to come out on top with the most unlikely of setups: a B-movie lover directing a blockbuster about the North/South divide, with huge stars and an even bigger budget. Result? Glory. Enter Park Chan-Wook, the star director.

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복수 (復讐, VENGEANCE)
13 years, but finally it's over. Geum-Ja is out, ready to complete the plot she's been planning for the last 13 years. She fooled people into becoming virtual slaves for her, she charmed her way out of a longer sentence through her deeds in prison, and she used other people for her own means. Now all that remains to do is killing that bastard, the man who caused all this in the first place. But Geum-Ja doesn't realize she came out of a prison to enter another, that of her own mind. She tries to find her lost daughter, and after meeting the detective who knew she wasn't responsible once again, her final revenge starts. She left the tastiest bit for last, killing that dog. Revenge, finally. And then, she can finally go back to being her old self, it's over. Over.

Mr. Jeon: 고생 많았죠. 13년반. 정말 대견합니다... (You suffered a lot. 13 and a half years. I'm so proud of you...)
Geum-Ja: 너나 잘 하세요. (Why don't you worry about yourself?)

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People have expectations, you know? A lot of the people who got to know Park Chan-Wook through 'JSA' misunderstood him as someone who made humanism his calling card. They expected his next film to be something similar, with big stars, stylish and impressive action scenes. You know, another blockbuster. But Park's world and that of 'JSA' weren't exactly on the same galaxy, or at least couldn't co-exist at the same time. He spent almost a decade professing his love for a certain kind of films, then he goes out and makes something which is the complete antithesis of it, at least on paper. I'd hesitate to call Park's masterful 2000 drama a 'producer-driven' film, as he was able to colour the film with his uniqueness, but let's not fool ourselves: 'JSA' was Myung Films' idea, Park just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and have the balls to go on with it even if wasn't the kind of film he always liked to make.

When Park announced his next film, 복수는 나의 것 (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance), people just looked at the cast, and expected another 'JSA'. Song Kang-Ho and his newfound popularity, super-talented theater-trained Shin Ha-Gyun from 'JSA', and Bae Doo-Na, one of the most exciting new talents in Chungmuro were cast. But then this guy goes out and makes a macabre, cruel, tough as nails 'hardboiled thriller' with a mean streak, criticizing Korean society and the opportunism of politics. By far Park's most controversial film, 'Mr. Vengeance' disappointed Park's new fans who quickly deserted theaters, but those who knew his past work and his personality weren't surprised one bit. Park was back, and now that he proved he could be a hitmaker, he finally had the chance to get his vengeance.

That this vengeance would come in three colours, over three films, wasn't something Park necessarily planned from the beginning. But the reaction to his work, on both sides of the spectrum, pushed him to flesh out his motives once again. After the masterful 'Mr. Vengeance', Park directed 올드보이 (Oldboy), one of the many great films of one of the best years Korean Cinema has ever experienced, 2003. Starring one of the most intelligent and intense actors in the country, Choi Min-Shik, up to then misused and underappreciated young talent Kang Hye-Jung, and the constantly improving Yoo Ji-Tae, the second part of his revenge trilogy made Park an Internationally acclaimed figure, winning important awards overseas, and elevating the profile of Korean Cinema abroad. More emotionally powerful and more concerned about the ironic exchange of roles in the personal vengeance which builds between two people (the victim becomes sinner, the sinner becomes victim), 'Oldboy' went all out in terms of visual style, reaching new heights in Park's career. A wild mixture of pulp sensibilities and the director's unmistakable talent for building something unique out of different genre elements, 'Oldboy' reconciled Park with the mainstream audience after the flop of 'Mr. Vengeance.' Now all that was left for him was the final installment, the end of the trilogy. Park's redemption after more than a decade of giving it all.

Jeon Do-Yeon was a TV idol and occasional movie star -- in popular melodramas like 접속 (The Contact) and 약속 (The Promise) -- when she starred in Jung Ji-Woo's 1999 film 해피엔드 (Happy End). Her transformation in the film was incredible, shocking the nation who always saw Jeon as the sweetheart next door. Her mature portrayal of a woman having an affair paved the way for what would become one of the brightest acting careers of our days. Few people expected her to showcase such range and be so brave, but after all, the talent had always been buried inside her, she just needed something to let it come out. Lee Young-Ae went through similar steps before being cast in Park's 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance). She was an impossibly beautiful queen of CFs, with a luxurious and 'upscale' image, almost too pretty to feel like one of us. Through her films and TV Dramas, she always displayed her talent, but it was always within a certain frame, she never crossed certain boundaries: she never made a fool of herself, never revealed too much (but in terms of her personal life and, well, in other terms), always doing enough to send the ball home, but nothing more.

This distance risked making Lee into another Choi Ji-Woo: too beautiful to approach, too distant to like, too concerned about her image to change status quo. I only really felt the person behind this facade twice, despite always respecting Lee's acting. Once was in the excellent 1996 TV Drama 그들의 포옹 (Their Embrace), in which she plays a similar character to her Geum-Ja here (although the motivations behind her revenge are a little different, tinted with political colours). Another was in 봄날은 간다 (One Fine Spring Day), a beautifully quiet 'anti-melodrama' from the king of melodrama Hur Jin-Ho. In casting someone like her, Park knew he could get the performance of her career out of her.

As good as her work in 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) was, he felt he could finally show all the fire inside her, hidden by her past image. And a lot of 'Lady Vengeance' is more about Lee Young-Ae than revenge itself, about her transformation. The project promised to bring back Park's theme of vengeance for one last time, but also show something new in Lee Young-Ae's career. And boy, so it does. Park fills the first half of the film with allusions to Lee's CF image, to her roles in TV Dramas (the cook who makes magic out of simple ingredients, enough to serve a King!), using it as an ironic build-up for Geum-Ja's revenge plan. Whereas the real person behind Geum-Ja built a career out of perfectly controlling every aspect of her life, Geum-Ja uses this way of living all for one purpose: find the man who caused her to commit a sin, and get her vengeance.

But one thing is instantly noticeable in this film, compared to the past two 'revenge' parts: Geum-Ja seems almost too perfect a character to exist in Park Chan-Wook's world, far removed from the everyday guy-turned-monster philosophical gymnastics of 'Oldboy', or the tormented anarchy of his voiceless, powerless characters in 'Mr. Vengeance'. Geum-Ja knows exactly what to do, she plans everything to perfection, like a Swiss clock. She slowly and inexorably brings everyone she needs into her vortex of of desire, by becoming an Angel for them; she meticulously prepares everything for the final confrontation, like a pupil from an old Shaw Brother flick training all his life to defeat his sifu and obtain the key to become a real fighter at the end. Even the man on the other side of the coin seems like a weak mortal next to this goddess of vengeance. Prof. Baek seems too much of a black and white character for a Park film, but what's important in 'Lady Vengeance' is Geum-Ja determination in getting that revenge, and everything which comes after that. Baek is a mere icon, a toy on top of the mountain Geum-Ja climbs for the entire film to get.

The film spends its first half reminding us of Lee Young-Ae's past image, to then make a sudden u-turn when she's out. Suddenly this angel becomes a witch, an expressionless devil hell bent on revenge, showcasing the kind of emotions we've never experienced before in a Lee Young-Ae performance. And the film itself does the same, referencing just about everything Park has done in the past, from the cruel humour of his past works -- especially the scripts he wrote for other films, 휴머니스트 (Humanist) on top -- to actors he used in the past -- Kim Bu-Seon and Ryu Seung-Wan in 'Trio', Song Kang-Ho and Shin Ha-Gyun in 'Mr. Vengeance' and 'JSA', Yoon Jin-Seo and Yoo Ji-Tae in 'Oldboy' -- and the ability to use pop culture and social commentary to thinly veil his characters' predicament. But then, the second half of 'Lady Vengeance' feels like entirely a new thing: incredibly measured, thrilling in its beauty and almost comfortable in its use of kinetic violence. I think this is Park's most mature film to date, as he put everything he learned, everything he loved about film into his most finely balanced, cohesive unit.

There's a scene in the film showing Geum-Ja's face changing from tears to laughter and a devilish look all in one take, with no CG or camera tricks. It perfectly shows not only Lee Young-Ae's stunning transformation, but also how much of his past career Park has put into this film, but how he finally escaped from that little prison of vengeance against the system his films were full of. The finale, perhaps the most powerful moment in all of the director's filmmaking career, wraps up what I think has been the first part of a hopefully very long journey into Park Chan-Wook's film world. The balancing act he pulls in the second half of the film, with every single element, from acting to cinematography and production design meticulously mixed to support Park's vision shows a director on top of his game. A director who can balance the needs of the mainstream and the demands of film buffs; someone who uses violence and visuals to tell a story, not to show his mental masturbation to the whole world.

On top of the mountain, after achieving revenge, what is Park's final message? He asks that question to the viewer themselves: what's revenge, why do people pursue it, why do they put themselves in a prison of their own to find their own alleged sense of freedom? The fact Park's own answer to such a question is so simple shows how much he's matured as a director. And that maybe he has found something after all that hard work and struggles...

구원 (救援, REDEMPTION) ?

Originally Published on Twitchfilm - 2006/Jan/09

ACTING GRADES

86 이영애 (Lee Young-Ae)
85 최민식 (Choi Min-Shik)
78 이승신 (Lee Seung-Shin)
74 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo)
73 남일우 (Nam Il-Woo)
71 라미란 (Ra Mi-Ran)
70 김부선 (Kim Bu-Seon)
70 김병욱 (Kim Byung-Wook)
70 권예영 (Kwon Ye-Young)
70 김시후 (Kim Si-Hoo)

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