The third instalment in Park Chan-wook's rampant revenge trilogy isn't exactly fresh. From the first two films, themes of kidnapping (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance) and imprisonment (Oldboy) recur. From Kill Bill, there's the majestically angry mother motif. Elsewhere, references range from women-in-prison flicks to femme-revenge outings such as Ms. 45 and Lady Snowblood, particularly as this impeccably stylish Lady's red-on-white opening titles parallel Snowblood's visual influence on Tarantino's Samurai-chick flick.
But it's to Park's credit that his Lady remains her own woman. Expecting Tarantino's bludgeons of blood? Hammer-time, Oldboy-style? Wrong film. This time, Park aims to pinpoint the ambiguities of a redemption sought through revenge, totting up the price of penitence via the tricky tack of what the act of vigilantism does to the vigilante. It's sombre, searching stuff and its aching sadness is acutely contained within Lee Young-ae's internalised performance.
Fans of Park's other maelstroms of mischief-hued mayhem won't feel short-changed, mind. He doesn't hold off on his highwire hoofing between horror and black humour, sensational style and substance. The fast, fizzy first half is a masterpiece of montage, flashing back and forward at full-pelt between Lee Geum-ja's life in and out of prison. When her righteously wicked plot begins, Park shows little up-front, but amplifies the aura of off-screen horrors. Similarly, Oldboy himself, Choi Min-sik, creates a vivid study in venomousness from very little that you actually see.
Bravura filmmaking? And then some. Still, it's tough to shake the suspicion that the tension between Park's flourishes and themes isn't always as productive or exciting as hoped for. One sniggersome sight-gag in the climactic sequence detracts from the film's chunkier exploration of how revenge can sap a soul and revels perhaps a little too readily in the sensationalist subject Park purports to probe - and when you'd be better off just surrendering to the punky, punchy and pell-mell mix of moods and methods, is all this wrestling with intricate plot worth the trouble anyway? Contrasted with Cronenberg's similarly themed but more cunningly implicatory A History Of Violence, Lady's excesses are its own worst enemy.
But if Park's film about the difficulty of pure redemption doesn't come easy, it does cut a sleek, vicious dash, dressed up in Geum-ja's mourning. Dwelled on for, ooh, 13 years, the pieces of its devilish design may well plop into place. The same goes for Park: given the increase in emotional resonance between Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, the parts of Park that seem capable of making a truly tremendous five-star film feel inches away from clicking.
See it anyway. You certainly won't be stuck for things to stew on afterwards.