The color of revengeNo matter how elaborately the critics fuss over the mise-en-scene in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” ― or “Kind Lady Geumja,” as it is titled in Korean ―production designer Cho Hwa-sung has only one thing to say about the heroine of the movie that much of Korea is talking about.
“Among the staff, she was nicknamed ‘Exhausting Lady Geumja,’ not ‘Kind Lady Geumja,’” says Cho, lighting a cigarette at a cafe. “She spends one night in her apartment the day she is released from prison. For the rest of the movie, she constantly moves around.”
“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” director Park Chan-wook’s follow-up to his acclaimed “Oldboy,” involved shooting in 50 different locations. The first quarter of the movie flashes back and forth between present and past, like images in a slideshow.
The complexity meant a heavier burden than usual for Cho, 37, whose job was to materialize the film’s visual concept and, ultimately, to create the mood of every set that appears in the movie.
“But the mobility shows her desperation,” says Cho. “Imagine. She’s just spent the last 13 years in prison.”
Cho has had a typical career for an art director in Korea. A design graduate, his resume includes slasher B-movies like “Dead When You Are Captured” and the science fiction film “Natural City,” which made scarcely a ripple in theaters.
“Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” represents a stylistic zenith for Park Chan-wook, whose “Oldboy” won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Quentin Tarantino headed the jury. “Lady Vengeance,” which was released last weekend, stars Lee Young-ae as a woman who seeks revenge on a man who kidnapped her daughter and got the heroine sentenced to prison for 13 years on a trumped-up charge of infanticide.
The film’s violence and grueling depiction of prison life apparently rubbed some on the Media Ratings Board the wrong way. The film had been submitted with a request for a 15 rating, but the ratings board gave it an 18, meaning no one under 18 was to be admitted.
That notwithstanding, the film has instantly become a hit; it attracted 2.1 million viewers in its first week, the third-highest first-week box office results in Korean history (the blockbusters “Taeguki” and “Silmido” are the top two). But even before it was released, the visual style of “Lady Vengeance” was getting a lot of public attention.
Just hours after the film’s first trailer was released, Internet portal sites were buzzing about the red, sultry eye makeup the heroine wears. Kitschy movie posters, mimicking the art of Pierre et Gilles with a depiction of the heroine wreathed by a halo, became the talk of the town when samples were accidentally leaked to an American movie site earlier this year.
In shopping alleys in Seoul, the retro-style dress and sunglasses worn by the heroine, which had been modeled on the style of the actress Olivia Hussey, have sold like hotcakes.
“It was fanatical,” says Cho. “Halfway through the shooting, we released our first still image of the heroine, clad in a polka-dot dress and walking out of Seoul Station. The next day, our staff went to Dongdaemun and found the shops filled with copies of exactly the same dress.”
Interest in the film was no doubt piqued by the secrecy of the production; the media were kept away until the official press screening, a week before the film opened.
And the apparent egotism in Park Chan-wook’s stylistic filmmaking ― also evident in “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the first two films in his “revenge trilogy” ― has created a certain fascination.
But most critics would agree that the success of Park’s latest film is largely in the visual details. Even the bandage on the heroine’s wounded pinky finger becomes an elaborate fashion statement.
Style dominates this film. Halfway through, there is a scene in which the heroine holds up her custom-made gun and says, “I like a pretty shape. No matter what it is, I like it to have a pretty shape.”
That philosophy is abundantly apparent in the film’s visuals, notably in the constant stylized use of blood. In the opening credits, each name is spelled out in sensual drops of what appears to be blood, but turns out to be strawberry syrup. There are other repeated uses of food as a metaphor for blood (the heroine is a pastry artist).
One poignant scene has the families of kidnapped children, soon after the kidnapper has been killed, clustered around a table to share a chocolate cake made by the heroine. In the next scene, the camera zooms in on the ambivalent face of one of the women, followed by a shot of dark red syrup on her plate. The syrup resembles thickening blood, and the suggestion seems to be of cannibalism.
“You can safely assume that all the details were intended,” Cho says. “...One of the great things about working with outstanding directors like Park is that he pushes everyone on his staff to use their imaginations and go beyond the script. As a result, each scene is loaded with multiple layers of meaning.”
In “Oldboy,” the patterns in wallpaper become an extension of characters’ psychological states. In “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” the symbolism is in the colors. Red is key, representing the heroine’s vulnerability, from the tinted eye makeup to the color of the wallpaper in her rundown apartment, which Cho intended to evoke a burning flame.
Asked about her red makeup by a friend in the movie, the heroine replies, “I was afraid I might look too kind.”
Viewers are likely to feel disturbed and seduced by the film’s artificiality. The last quarter, which takes place mostly in an abandoned school, is theatrical almost to the point of being surreal.
“I was actually told to create an atmosphere that gives the audience the feeling of watching a play in a small theater,” Cho says. “Near the end, there is no sense of reality. Who would eat a cake after killing someone?”
The film raises a question about redemption, opening with a scene in which the heroine knocks back a plate of tofu offered by an evangelist as a symbol of “reviving a white-pure life,” and ending with a scene in which she slams her face into a tofu cake in front of her young daughter. It’s an ambivalent ending that leaves viewers with mixed emotions.
“One of the main things I was told to produce by the director was an extraordinary film that looks ordinary,” Cho says. “There have been jokes about it. After all, ‘Kind Lady Geumja’ is not such a kind movie.”
by Park Soo-mee
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it