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Film / Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

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"Ma'am, there is no such thing as a 'perfect person'..."
Mr. Baek

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a 2005 Korean thriller directed by Park Chan-wook, released in Korea under the title of 친절한 금자씨 (Kind-hearted Geum-ja). It's the final film in Park's Thematic Series on revenge, following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy (2003).

Lee Geum-ja, a 19-year-old girl paying the price of some bad decisions, is blackmailed into falsely confessing to the murder of a child. After 14 years in prison, she emerges a cold, vengeance-driven woman, dropping the kind, gentle facade that had won her the friendship and loyalty of the other female prisoners. Using her connections formed in prison, Geum-ja sets into motion a plan 14 years in the making. Her goal is to punish Mr. Baek, the real murderer; however, even revenge may not be enough for Geum-ja to find redemption.


This film provides examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Geum-ja shoots Mr. Baek once in each foot as he is Bound and Gagged in a chair in the abandoned school.
  • Arbitrary Maximum Range: Justified. Geum-ja's gun can only be fired accurately at very close range, since it's smooth-bore. It's still very effective.
  • Asshole Victim: The witch and Mr Baek eventually get killed by Geum-ja in this order. The former was a cannibalistic Depraved Bisexual prison bully and the latter a child murdering Serial Killer. No one complained.
  • The Atoner
    Everyone makes mistakes. But if you committed a sin, you have to make an atonement for that sin. Atonement, do you know what that means? Big Atonement for big sins. Small Atonement for small sins.
    • Geum-ja takes this far enough to seek out the murdered boy's parents and cut her finger off in front of them as an apology.
      • Originally she wanted to cut all of her fingers off, until the parents would forgive her. But it ends soon, as the parents call for a ambulance.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Geum-ja's custom-made handgun is aesthetic and very powerful, but it can only be fired at a very close range.
    • "It has to be pretty. Everything should be pretty."
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  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Described almost perfectly with Pay Evil unto Evil. No one deludes themselves into thinking that what they're doing is good.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Geum-ja finally succeeds in getting her vengeance on Mr. Baek and finally reconciles with her daughter Jenny. But unfortunately, the events will haunt her forever and now she has to live with the fact that she has lost the chance for redemption and will never be "pure" again.
  • Bookends: Upon release from prison, a priest offers Geum-ja a block of tofu to eat, to symbolize "living white" and pure. She refuses it. In the end, Geum-ja offers a cake shaped like a block of tofu to her daughter, pleading for the same. Jenny eats the cake, then offers it to Geum-ja, who tastes it…then starts crying uncontrollably.
  • Bound and Gagged: After abducting Mr. Baek, Geum-ja keeps him bound to a chair and gagged in the abandoned school. When the families of his victims confront him, some chose to ungag him so they can hear what he has to say (or hear him beg for mercy), while others leave him gagged because they have no interest in his excuses or justifications.
  • Call-Back: Mr. Baek (played by Choi Min-sik) being depicted as a dog in the Dream Sequence evokes memories of Oldboy.
    • The two hitmen hired by Mr. Baek are played by Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun, the two leading actors of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
    • When recounting how the original abduction occurred, Geum-Ja says that Mr. Baek convinced her by saying that there are good kidnappings and bad kidnappings, and that good kidnappings end with the child safely returned after the ransom is paid. This is the same explanation Yeong-mi used to convince Ryu to go through with the kidnapping in Sympathy for Mr. Vengenace, which ended with similarly tragic results.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Won-mo's missing marble, which was the element that convinced the detective of her innocence. The real killer, Mr. Baek, had the marble hanging on his cell phone strap like a trophy.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The prison priest turns out to be hired by Baek to spy on Geum-ja.
  • Clothing Combat: One of Geum-ja's cellmates is a prostitute who is in prison for strangling her pimp with his necktie. Much later, Geum-ja uses Mr. Baek's tie to throw him around the room while he is Bound and Gagged.
  • Convenient Photograph: Invoked. After identifying the real child murderer, the vengeful murderers take a photograph of all of them together and bury it as a backup to ensure that nobody can backstab each other.
  • Cool Gun: Geum-Ja's handmade two-barrel pistol.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Mr. Baek has kept a small token (a button, a plastic ring, etc.) from each of the children he has murdered and has them attached as charms on his cellphone. Geum-ja realizes what they are when she recognizes Won-mo's marble.
  • Depraved Bisexual: The Witch, a prisoner who raped the other inmates and was sent to prison for killing and cannibalizing her husband.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Played with in the Fade to Black and White edition of the film, which does exactly that. The heavy primary colours at the start of the film fade away to pastels and eventually to monochrome footage. The choice of shooting locations and clothing also helped sell this aesthetic; for instance, the blue outfits of the prison and Geum-ja's blue coat are later replaced by a black leather jacket; and the final sections of the film are shot in places with much more industrial design.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: Among others, Geum-ja's apartment and this official poster of the film.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Mr. Baek's wife teams up with Geum-Ja (who helped her in jail) to make him pay for his crimes.
  • Domestic Abuse: Mr. Baek beats up and sexually abuses his wife, who is an ex-convict.
  • Dramatic Drop: When Geum-ja knocks the symbolic tofu out of the Preacher's hands outside the prison, the band is shocked and the cymbalist drops one of his cymbals. Later, Geun-shik catches sight of Geum-ja for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he drops the stack of boxes he is carrying.
  • Dream Sequence: Geum-ja has one of killing Mr. Baek, and he is ... a dog!
  • Evil Costume Switch: As she is finally released, Geum-Ja cuts her hair in a more mature hairstyle, wears leather clothes and deliberately wears red eye shadow so she wouldn't look angelic.
  • Evil Teacher: Mr. Baek has a job as an English teacher that makes it easier for him to avoid suspicion, when he's actually a Child Hater Serial Killer.
  • Everybody Did It: Mr. Baek is killed by Geum-Ja along with the relatives of the children he murdered in a Murder on the Orient Express fashion.
  • Excessive Anti-Heroic Eye Shadow: A running gag, in which people wonder just what possessed Geum-ja to start wearing hot pink, or rather almost blood red, eye shadow.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: Although Gory Discretion Shot spares us from nightmarish sights, Mr. Baek meets a slow end at the hands of his victim's relatives, who strike him blows with weapons like daggers, scissors and axes. The relatives are shown after all covered in blood.
  • Faceplanting into Food: In the final scene, Geum-ja does this with the cake she made for her daughter. As established in the opening scene, the cake symbolizes forgiveness, so while being potentially funny as typical for this trope, this reaction is also tragic in a way, portraying Geum-ja's longing for forgiveness.
  • Fairytale Motifs: A Wicked Witch? A Broken Angel? A Big Bad Wolf?
  • False Friend: Geum-ja murders the witch and even gives away a goddamned kidney just so she can call a few favors later.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Played for Drama; Geum-ja, after failing to prevent Mr. Baek from suffocating a child, tracks down the child's parents and tries to cut off all her fingers for forgiveness. Granted, it's not akin to a white lie, but considering that a)there was absolutely nothing she could have done to stop it; and b) her newborn daughter's life was at risk had she not taken the blame, you'd think she wouldn't blame herself as much.
  • Food Porn: Look at that cakes. It has to be expected when the protagonists is a Supreme Chef and works in a bakery.
  • Foreshadowing: While staying at Geum-ja's apartment, Jenny briefly talks to the ghost of the murdered boy, who can't understand her due to not speaking English. The narrator notes that Geum-ja would be extremely upset if she knew she'd missed the ghost before having a chance to apologize. Later, at the end of the film, Geum-ja herself encounters the ghost, who gags her mouth before she can say she's sorry.
  • Forgiveness: What Geum-Ja wants, but doubts she can ever earn.
  • Funny Background Event: When the Witch is forcing her newest slave to pleasure her in the bathroom, Geum-ja can be seen over her shoulder, soaping the floor. This receives a payoff later.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: You don't actually see what happens to Baek, but you see several of the victims' relatives come out of the room covered in blood and very shaken.
  • Hand Cannon: Geum-ja's customized handgun blows a man's hand off.
  • Human Shield: One of Mr. Baek's assassins uses Jenny as a human shield to hold Geum-ja at bay. he regrets this. Briefly.
  • I Have Your Wife: Mr. Baek coerces Geum-ja into making a False Confession to the murder of Won-mo by holding her daughter hostage.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: The murdered children's parents needed one before going through their collective revenge.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: What the Witch did to her husband and his mistress. She is arrested when she was doing a barbecue with saucy hubby meat.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Invoked through Guem-ja wearing rouge eye-shadow after prison so she doesn't appear kindhearted.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Geum-Ja kills the Witch by methodically poisoning her food with detergent, "cleaning" her stomach, as the other inmates joke. She was convicted for killing and eating her husband and his mistress.
    • Mr. Baek is killed by Geum-Ja with the help of the families of the children he murdered.
  • Lady in Red: Aside from wearing red eye shadow, Geum-Ja wears a red négligé when she seduces her younger co-worker.
  • Literal Disarming: When one of Mr. Baek's assassins uses Geum-ja's daughter as a Human Shield, she closes blows the hand holding the knife off at the wrist.
  • Market-Based Title: The title (Sympathy for) Lady Vengeance is clearly supposed to attract audiences that expect an action movie with a female lead character similar to Kill Bill, even though this movie couldn't be much more different. The Korean title, Chinjeolhan Geumjassi translates to "The kind-hearted Mrs Geum-ja". That has a very different ring to it, doesn't it?
    • As we're at it, there also exists this cover from a Swedish release that is pretty unambiguous in what it wants to make the buyer believe.
  • Match Cut: During a tense scene showing a recording of Mr. Baek about murder a young girl by hanging, the scene shows Mr. Baek pulling the chair to hang the girl, then cutting to a parent falling off her chair in shock.
  • May–December Romance: Two of them. Both were one-sided in a way.
    • The young guy that works with Geum-Ja is very attracted to her and even asks if he can call her "big sister" (a term of affection that can have different meanings). She shoots him down but later uses him to teach her daughter Korean since she was raised in Australia.
    • Geum-ja herself was infatuated with Mr. Baek when she was a teenager and had an affair with the much older man. She ended up getting pregnant from a different relationship (this time, a classmate) and asked Baek to help her take care of the child, which kicks off the plot. She considered the relationship much more seriously than Baek did.
  • Narrator All Along: Geum-ja's daughter Jenny, when she grew up. This is revealed in the final line of dialogue: the narrator's voice says, "Farewell…", followed by Jenny's voice saying, "Geum-ja."
  • Nice Girl: In prison, Geum-ja makes a reputation for being kind, helpful and friendly. Even when she poisons the witch to death by putting detergent in her food, gaining her the nickname of "Witch", she's still referred to as "the kind one". Because they aren't mutually exclusive.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Geum-ja's daughter was raised in Australia. Her daughter doesn't say much but when she does speak, it's a North American accent. The actress was Korean-American.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Geum-Ja and the children's families' entire M.O. to Mr. Baek.
  • Prison Rape: This movie is one of the few that depict prison rape among women.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Invoked with the witch. When she murders and eats her husband and his lover, only a brief shot of her eating Mystery Meat is given; the scene where she rapes another inmate, however, is pretty darn graphic. The main reason for this is to undoubtedly justify Geum-ja killing her in a horrible fashion.
  • Shoot the Dog: The image for the page comes from this film; Geum-ja apparently tests herself to see if she has a killer instinct by shooting her daughter's pet dog. This could elicit a Moral Event Horizon or a What the Hell, Hero? reaction from the audience.
  • Shoot the Hostage Taker: One of Mr. Baek's assassins attempts to use Geum-ja's daughter Jenny as a Human Shield. Seriously bad move. Results in a Literal Disarming as the blows the hand holding the knife off at the wrist.
  • Slasher Smile: Mr. Baek's wife has smiles with her mouth covered with blood has she managed to subdue her husband and Geum-Ja ahows up.
  • Spice Up the Subtitles: When Geum-ja visits the Australian parents who adopted her daughter, her subtitles (in Korean) fill out in English sentence structure order (noun, verb, preposition, article, noun, etc.) instead of Korean sentence structure (noun, article, noun, verb, etc.), showing the Korean audience the unease that Geum-ja is having with the English language. Everyone else's subtitles fill out left-to-right.
  • Stocking Mask: So-young and her husband wear stocking masks during the bank robbery they. The stocking have a snakeskin pattern on them, and—perhaps because they are more opaque than regular stockings—they have cut eye and mouth holes in them.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: In probably the most dramatic version of this trope ever, Geum-ja's first action after being framed for the murders is to chop off her finger for the boy's parents in apology. When speaking about the incident with her daughter Jenny, Jenny's response is, "Do you want to say sorry to his mother?" She even starts counting fingers behind her back for each time Geum-ja apologizes to her.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: In prison, Geum-ja kills the Witch by adulterating her food with bleach. For three years!
  • Title Sequence: And it's 'beautiful'!
  • To the Pain: Geum-Ja puts a microphone in the room where she and the parents are discussing how to kill Baek, and a speaker where he's being held.
  • Tranquil Fury: Geum-Ja's attitude after being released.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Baek's mementos are later given to the victims' relatives.
  • Was It All a Lie?: It turns out Geum-ja even pretended to like a lesbian simply to use her as a resource for revenge.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: Geum-ja kills the witch in a pretty nasty way, and promptly inherits her title. To a much more chilling extent, Baek keeps personal mementos from the children he murders and uses some of them as phone charms.
  • Yubitsume: Geum-ja goes to the parents of the murdered boy, with the intent of getting rid of her fingers until they accept the apology. She manages to only remove one.