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How do you follow one of the best and most successful films your country - indeed, world cinema - has produced? In the case of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, you follow much the same path you've already trodden. This is probably doing a disservice to Lady Vengeance, though - for as much as there are similarities with its visceral, shocking predecessor, it is a very different movie, and when it forms the third part of the Vengeance Trilogy, there's only so much room for thematic flexibility.
The three films are unrelated, save for their associations with revenge. As such, there's no need to watch the first films of the trilogy in order to understand this one, although in missing Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, you're missing a good film and a great film, in that order.
Lee Geum-ja is released from prison early on account of her exceptional behaviour, having been sentenced for the murder of a young child thirteen years earlier. A popular, caring character inside prison, she earned the moniker "kind-hearted Geum-ja" (the original Korean title of the film). Once she exits the prison gates, however, she undertakes the most iconic of the film's many visual transformations, donning blood-red mascara, a leather coat and high-heels; and sets out in search of vengeance ("I don't want to look kind-hearted", she says).
Vengeance for Geum-ja (the sensational Lee Young-ae) is tracking down the man who framed her (Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy, moving delectably from protagonist to antagonist), recovering her lost family and exacting an obsessive plan she has been brewing for thirteen years.
If the plot is simple, the execution is anything but. In searching for her object of vengeance, Geum-ja enlists the help of her former inmates, calling in favours she built up during her years of benevolence and generosity inside. Through a series of flashbacks, director Park tells the stories of these women and the debts they owe Geum-ja. The style of storytelling is intriguing, and builds up a level of detail which immerses you in the tale, although it's a fraction disorientating first time around - the way in which the full extent of the plot is gradually drip-fed to the viewer makes it equally difficult to fully appreciate Lady Vengeance on initial viewing.
This first time, it's the perfectly imagined and realised visuals which will strike you, and the shocking scenes towards the climax that fit in with Park's previous films in terms of hard-hitting, but not gratuitous violence. The soundscape too, is impeccably judged - and a little unusual, if all the more striking for it - with a distinctly baroque feel to the music which often contrasts quite starkly with the on-screen action.
Lady Vengeance isn't as graphic as Oldboy by any means, although it's probably every bit as shocking in terms of subject matter. It isn't either the relentless crusade of revenge one might expect from the synopsis, with a pace that rises and falls, and confines the actual retribution to the film's endgame. Intelligent, moving and quite beautifully realised, this may not have its antecedent's raw impact, but is a quite wonderful successor that is probably best appreciated with repeat viewings.
The film was originally conceived as fading gradually to grayscale, reflecting the journey the characters make in search of vengeance. Although this version was ultimately rejected by the director, it is still available on the Blu-Ray release, and the film retains this increasingly sombre and reflective mood even without the visual reinforcement. It may not endure quite as strongly as Oldboy, but Lady Vengeance is in many ways an equally impressive film; a highly stylised meeting-place of shock and substance that brings a quite exceptional trilogy to a fitting close.