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Korean film scholar Soyoung Kim has some interesting thoughts on the role of whiteness in Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. No, not that kind of whiteness...
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance review
Cine 21, No. 513, 8/1/2005
by Soyoung Kim
(Soyoung Kim is professor of the School of Film, Television and Multimedia at the Korean National University of Arts.)
Translated by Hyong Shin Kim
The expectations which this film raised -- the transformation of Young-ae Lee, who is the star of Daejanggeum and a commercial queen -- seem to have been fulfilled. When the trusty Keumja (Young-ae Lee) wears a yellow uniform and smiles oddly, she does not merely possess the image of the luxurious model from the commercial of a big cosmetics company. Rather, it seems that she fulfills the sadistic attitude of the audience, one which enjoys the fritz of the image of a luxurious brand. As interesting as this transformation is, my concern is over the small but significant part where white tofu is replaced with white cake. The problematic cake making was accomplished during Keumja's 13-year imprisonment, which she received at the age of 20 due to false charges of kidnapping and murder. When she was much younger, the brilliant hand skill of Keumja -- who lacks a special action skill compared to other protagonists of revenge movies -- was baking, specifically baking cakes. In Chanwook Park’s films, an obsession with a certain food is as imperative as an obsession with revenge. (Recall that a fried dumpling was the clue to solving the first riddle in Oldboy.)
I think the success of this film relates to the success of the efforts made in transforming white tofu into white cake. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a movie with a conspicuous set design rather than a movie that depicts the grit and grime of life. As this film is a work that is a transition point from Chungmuro cinema to post-Chungmuro cinema, lighting, costume, and production design are very important for publicizing the film. Lady Vengeance's artificiality of set desperately demands the audience’s visual attention. Like recent South Korean films displaying killing wallpaper, the small room of the beauty shop, which becomes the hermitage of Keumja, is, borrowing from the copyright of publicity, covered with “red flame wallpaper,” and the room is designed to make entering the room like “falling into hell.” Yet it is the hell of a set, not a hell stained with the filth of an irksome life. In other words, it is artificial hell. In this respect, although the beginning that shows white tofu outside a prison is similar to that of Oasis, the set of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is totally different from the leased apartment of Oasis. Instead of being helped by realism or reality -- establishing artificiality itself as the core of the structure of the film -- there is only one way for Lady Vengeance to go: the direction embodying artificiality itself fantastically by depicting artificiality more realistically than reality. The dry and seemingly agreement-seeking voice-over narration of dubbing artist Sae-won Kim -- “nevertheless, because, I liked Keumja" -- arouses a radio-drama-like, nostalgic, ironic feeling of distance. It is a good apparatus evoking familiarity and heterogeneity at the same time. This suits the ambivalent image of Young-ae Lee very well.
However, I am afraid that the inclination toward exclamation does not last. To give a thumbs up and say “fantastic!” does not apply to the latter part of the film, which is too coarsely artificial. The acting of Keumja’s fellow inmates, the use of flashback, and the shot transitions are indeed innovative. Yet the group of the victims' parents, gathering for collective revenge, is too weak in degree to perform the drama of collective vengeance engendered by the shock and trauma of kidnapping. In fact, this sequence could have been amazing. I actually expected “the politics of affectability" to diagnose and soothe the parents’ trauma. Instead the film shows the bank account number of the parents who lost their children and are hoping to get the kidnapper’s money. Although this double-edged trope, which director Ki-young Kim used to like to use, is a biting implication of human greed, it is not a proper edification about child kidnapping.
Somehow or other, it is obvious that Lady Vengeance left the world of shimpa -- a certain code of Chungmuro -- where a protagonist hits a bad patch on a false charge and goes to prison and decides to rehabilitate by eating tofu. Nevertheless, it is hard to say that the film has changed into the white cake either. Yet in some respect, this hesitation may become a surprising driving force for Chanwook Park working in both Chungmuro and the globe.
[Chungmuro is a geographical destination somewhere in the middle part of Seoul. Chungmuro is where most film studios used to be located. Although most movie studios moved from Chungmuro to Kangnam area, Chungmuro symbolizes and signifies the Korean film industry.]
Date Posted: 1/26/2006