At a time when news headlines describe horrors that most people can barely fathom, movies have, for the most part, lost their ability to truly shock. These days truth is stranger and more disturbing than any fiction, so most filmmakers who even make an attempt to shock viewers come across as self-conscious, and their work seems far too labored to have any real effect (see: Takashi Miike, Michael Haneke, or any number of pretentious European directors).
One exception is Park Chan-wook, who wraps up his challenging revenge trilogy with "Lady Vengeance," which follows "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Oldboy." It has turned out to be an uneven trilogy, due to the pointlessness of the nihilistic first installment. But if nothing else these movies have shown that with the right filmmaker at the helm, once in a while movies can continue to surprise us, thrill us, and leave us genuinely shocked without resorting to cheap theatrics.
As "Lady Vengeance" opens, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae, in a layered performance) has just been released from prison, where she served several years for the murder of a young boy. We soon learn that the boy's death was the result of a kidnapping scheme gone awry, and Geum-ja was blackmailed by her partner (Choi Min-Sik, pulling an about-face after his role as the hero in "Oldboy") into taking the wrap for a murder she didn't commit. Now free, she has two goals: to locate the daughter she had to give up for adoption when she went to prison, and to track down her former partner to exact her revenge.
However, things don't go as planned, and following some key third-act revelations "Lady Vengeance" transforms itself from a corker of a crime yarn into something else entirely. What that "something" is I cannot in good conscience reveal, but squeamish viewers should be warned that by the end, the film earns its place as one of the most gut-wrenching, unflinchingly hopeless movies I've ever seen.
Of course, I mean that in the best way possible. Unlike some recent dark films (crowd-pleasers "Million Dollar Baby" and "Hostel" among them), "Lady Vengeance" doesn't aimlessly wallow in its own darkness. There's a method to Chan-wook's madness, and a point, too.
The films in the "vengeance trilogy" are not linked narratively, but share common themes that each film tackles in a different way. Whereas "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" charted how the desire for revenge can spiral out of control, and "Oldboy" looked at how people can be manipulated into embracing their own doom, "Lady Vengeance" asks viewers to consider the full ramifications - both physical and psychological - of the thirst for vengeance, no matter how justified or righteous. Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is it just one long journey that, in the end, refuses the possibility of redemption?
"Lady Vengeance" is now playing in limited release, and will expand wider in the coming weeks. It is rated R for graphic violence, gore, torture, rape and profanity.
**** (out of four)
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.