Writer-director Chan-wook Park loves his puzzle-boxes. The three successive features that form his thematically linked "vengeance trilogy"–2002's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, 2003's Oldboy, and 2005's Lady Vengeance–all draw viewers in by forcing them to unravel mysteries. But where Oldboy boasted a strong, simple central story, with the questions all in the whys and wherefores of the neatly unfolding plot, the two bookend films take a different tactic. Opening with a confounding welter of disjointed scenes, they make viewers actively work to make sense of events. Still, the rewards are there for those who bother.
In the case of Lady Vengeance, the questions all revolve around Lee Yeong-ae, a convicted murderer first seen leaving prison after a 13-year sentence. Park's achronological portrait of her is full of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. Known both as "the Witch" and an angel in prison, she appears as a ruthless, icy harpy upon her release; her first act of freedom is to coldly dismiss the eager greeting party awaiting her outside. Yet flashbacks show her selflessly caring for the prison geriatric, donating a kidney to a fellow inmate, and warmly counseling a weeping prisoner on prayer and redemption. In one scene, she shows a news team how she suffocated a kidnapped child to death; in another, she cuts off a finger in atonement, begging the boy's parents to forgive her. Half the movie simply revolves around the question of who she really is and what's going on in her life and in her head.
The other half deals with her graphic, grotesque revenge against Oldboy star Choi Min-sik, the schoolteacher who defined her life. As with Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, Park goes to discomfitingly bloody extremes once the gloves come off, and the result is viscerally disturbing, yet riveting. Early on, Lady Vengeance takes an almost Amelie-like tone, with startlingly vivid, stylish, almost comic CGI effects and miniature individual portraits of newly introduced bit players. Then it all devolves into immensely protracted Grand Guignol. It takes patience and industry to make sense of the first half, intestinal fortitude to deal with the second, and a little flexibility to make the transition from one to the other. But the whole process adds up to a fairly impressive two-stage thrill ride, like rafting through choppy waters, then plummeting over a waterfall into a dark and deadly pit.