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Women may not be the gentler sex, but in the movies, at least, they’re rarely depicted as capable of the sort of brutality celebrated by Korean director Park Chan-wook. This reluctance might seem to explain why Lady Vengeance starts so sedately, swathed in Vivaldi and lacking any gore save the credit sequence’s elegant trickles of blood. But the finale of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy isn’t less savage than its now-notorious predecessors, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. It’s just that the director hoards most of the brutality for the climax, a sequence so morally unsettling that it easily tops Oldboy’s gobbling-the-octopus bit. The script, co-written with Chung Seo-kyung, recycles numerous motifs from Park’s canon, including false imprisonment and a missing daughter. Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) emerges from the former after serving 13 years for the murder of a young boy and is promptly called “an angel.” Prison, she tells cheering Christian-evangelist onlookers, is an ideal place to learn to pray. But it’s also a school for other skills, and icy Geum-ja has assembled a group of indebted former cellmates to help with a rather unholy quest: punishing the real killer, schoolteacher Baek (Oldboy star Choi Min-sik). Geum-ja didn’t finger Baek at the time because he was holding her infant daughter hostage, and finding the girl—now a teenager living with adoptive parents in Australia—is one of the scenario’s many complications. The filmmaker flashes back and forward, intentionally braking the story’s momentum and creating an atmosphere that’s as remote as it is stylish. The distance vanishes, however, in the concluding showdown, which flaunts both emotional and physical cruelty. Some moments—Is she really going to shoot that puppy?—are played merely for malicious humor. Yet Park, who ascribes his obsession with retribution to a sort of survivor’s guilt over having endured South Korea’s decades of dictatorship, isn’t simply having a bloody snigger. (For that, see his chapter of last year’s Three…Extremes.) Lady Vengeance moves from bitter satires of Christian piety and Korea’s overseas adoption program to a graphic meditation on the difference between justice and revenge—if, the film wonders between Grand Guignol flourishes, there can be a difference at all.

—Mark Jenkins