This post includes a brief plot summary and an explanation about the ending of the film Lady Vengeance / Chinjeolhan geumjassi (2005). Beware of spoilers.
Directed by Park Chan-wook, the 2005 thriller stars Lee Young-ae as Lee Geum-ja and Choi Min-sik as Mr. Baek. Lady Vengeance is the third and final piece of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy.
Lady Vengeance (2005) – Plot Summary
The story follows a non-linear narrative, alternating between past and present moments of “young” Geum-ja and “present” Geum-ja.
The Past (Young Geum-ja)
When Geum-ja was still a teenager, she got pregnant. At the time, Geum-ja had no means to support herself, as a result, she went to Mr. Baek (a teacher at her school) for help.
Baek provides Geum-ja a place to stay, but in return, she had to do things for him. Little did she know, Baek had a terrible secret: the teacher kidnaps children for his own profit. Although all his victims’ families paid the ransom money, they never got to see their children ever again. To avoid further suspicions, Baek would always move to another school after murdering his victims.
A little boy named Won-mo was Baek’s last victim. This time, Baek kidnapped Won-mo with Geum-ja’s help, who at the time, had no idea about the teacher’s intent to kill the child. Later on, Baek threatens Geum-ja and makes her take the blame for Won-mo’s murder. Meanwhile, Baek keeps his promise of sparing her baby’s life and puts her up for adoption.
During her time in prison, Geum-ja became famous for her “kindness”. However, it was all a facade and part of her revenge plan. Every small act of kindness performed by Geum-ja was a way for her to collect favours from her inmates.
It’s no coincidence that Geum-ja was able to settle pretty quickly after her release from prison. The inmates that she once helped were already out, therefore, it was easy for them to provide Geum-ja with clothes, shelter and weapons.
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Lady Vengeance (2005) [DVD]
The Present (Current Geum-ja)
Geum-ja gets a job at a pastry shop. There she meets one young man named Geun-shik, who is about the same age as Won-mo had he not died. Despite of revealing her past to Geun-shik, he does not seem to care. Later on, the two spend the night together.
After some digging, Geum-ja tracks her daughter (Jenny) down: a couple in Australia adopted her. Geum-ja flies to meet her. Jenny is still angry at her mother for abandoning her, but she also wants to get to know her better. Therefore, mother and daughter fly back to Seoul.
Baek learns that Geum-ja is out of prison and after him. Therefore, the teacher hires two thugs to silence Geum-ja and Jenny. However, his plan backfires: Geum-ja fights backs and kills them. Meanwhile, Baek’s wife (Geum-ja’s former inmate) drugs her husband.
Geum-ja arrives to Baek’s apartment and kidnaps him. She takes him to an abandoned school. After waking him up, Geum-ja tells Baek to translate a few words to Jenny. After that, Geum-ja sends Jenny away.
Now that she’s alone with Baek, Geum-ja confronts him but cannot bring herself to pull the trigger and end the man’s life. As she searches for his phone, Geum-ja notices a string with various trinkets attached to it. Then, she realizes that there were other victims. Horrified, Geum-ja shoots both of Baek’s feet.
In order to gather more evidence, Geum-ja returns to Baek’s apartment. At the site, she finds four ransom tapes. Meanwhile, Geum-ja calls detective Choi and together they reach out to the families. At the abandoned school, they show the tapes to the families. After learning what really happened to their children, the families decide to murder Baek.
Now that Baek is no longer alive, the families gather together for a picture, which will later on work as a guarantee that no one can on turn in each other to the authorities. After that, they bury the body in the woods and head to Geum-ja’s workplace. They sit altogether and have some cake.
Later on, Geum-ja sees Won-mo spirit. The boy transforms into an adult version of himself and gags Geum-ja. After this vision, Geum-ja rushes to Jenny with a white tofu cake and asks her daughter to be pure. Meanwhile, she buries her face in the cake and cries.
Lady Vengeance (2005) – Ending Explained
On the outside, Lady Vengeance looks like your typical tale of revenge: Geum-ja is after the man who wronged her and made her go to prison. However, the story goes deeper than that.
Geum-ja is not an angel, but she’s certainly not the worst human being on the planet. Baek took advantage of Geum-ja’s naivety and made her pay for a crime she did not commit. Though Geum-ja has a major goal in mind (end Baek’s life) she’s also trying to atone for her past mistakes. Having said that, Lady Vengeance is (in its truest form) a tale of redemption.
The Murder Of Mr. Baek
The man is without a doubt the main villain of this entire story. Now, did he deserve that gruesome death? Well, Baek deserved a hefty punishment for what he did. The school teacher kidnapped those kids because he was greedy and wanted to purchase “nice things”. So, there’s really no redemption for someone like Baek.
What’s so awful about Mr. Baek? The man has no conscience. Unlike Geum-ja, Baek never tried to atone for his crimes. There was never a moment where he regretted killing those kids. As a matter of fact, Baek even prides himself for getting away with murder all these years. It’s not a coincidence that the teacher kept all those “souvenirs”. The little trinkets on his phone were essentially “trophies”.
Although, Baek’s death does not bring back the children to their families, it gave them at least a certain sense of closure. Let’s not forget that Baek’s heinous acts had terrible repercussions in the victims’ families. First all, these people had to deal with grief (the loss of their child). Not only that, but they also had to cope with the aftermath: financial difficulties, losing a spouse (suicide) among other problems.
The White Tofu Cake
At the end of the film, Geum-ja buries her face in the white tofu cake that she made for Jenny. So what does that mean? Did Geum-ja get the redemption that she was looking for?
The white tofu cake represents pureness. Geum-ja knows that she has sinned and she doesn’t want Jenny to become a “sinner” like her. Now, in what ways has Geum-ja sinned? Isn’t she a victim too? Although Geum-ja never had any intentions of hurting Won-mo, her only victim, she did contribute to this death. It’s true that Geum-ja had no idea that Baek was going to kill the little boy, but not knowing is not an excuse. Won-mo died in Baek’s hands, but it was Geum-ja who brought him to Baek.
Ending Baek’s life brought closure to victims’ families but it didn’t make Geum-ja feel better about herself. Seeing Won-mo as an adult and gagging her, made Geum-ja realize that there’s nothing she can do to undo the past. That’s why Geum-ja pleads her daughter to be and stay pure.
Despite of successfully killing Baek (the bad guy), Geum-ja realizes that she’ll never be able to make things right for the victims and their families. That’s why she buries her face in the white tofu cake. Geum-ja desperately wants to be pure again and redeem herself, but her “sins” are too big.
Lady Vengeance is a powerful film that challenges beliefs. For instance, it was kind of wrong from Geum-ja to pretend that she’s a nice person during her time in prison. However, she didn’t hurt anyone with her “kindness”. As a matter of fact, Geum-ja’s kind acts did end up helping a lot of inmates. So, it was sort of a win-win type of situation for both sides. In addition, every former inmate that she reached out to knew what her big plan was about (ending Baek’s life) and they were okay with her motives.
The murder of Mr. Baek was definitely one of the highlights of Lady Vengeance. The audience is aware of what’s happening in the other room: they are torturing Mr. Baek. However, the camera never captures the whole “show”, only bits and pieces. Not showing it all, did not make the scene less powerful. As a matter of fact, it made it even scarier because it leaves more room for imagination.
Although Geum-ja presents herself as a cold, cynical and manipulative woman, everyone is kind of rooting for her. As viewers, we soon realize why she became like that. Even the most innocent and pure can fall into disgrace. Had Geum-ja known that one day she would end up in prison because of Baek, she would’ve never reached out to him.
As I said before, Lady Vengeance is a tale of redemption. Although the ending was heartbreaking, it felt adequate. In a fairy-tale like story, Geum-ja and her daughter would end up together and live happily ever after. However, that’s not what Lady Vengeance is about. In this story, our protagonist gets her revenge but also comes to the realization, that killing the man that wronged her will not bring her what she lost.
Last but least, the film also challenges the audience with the following idea: sometimes good people can do bad things. In Geum-ja’s case, she used other people to execute her revenge. Not only did she used her inmates to help her once she was out of prison, but Geum-ja also persuaded the victims’ families to kill Baek in a very slow and painful way. Does that make as awful as her target (Mr. Baek) or not? As one can see, Lady Vengeance raises a lot questions to its audience, and that’s why it’s such a great film to watch.