If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, on a good day, guess how tough she'd be when armed with a mountaineer's pickaxe or a double-barreled antique firearm.
Movies about raging heroines can inspire kick-ass posters and adolescent cult followings without necessarily saying anything profound about women, revenge or the thematic mine fields where they intersect. Such bloodthirsty females frequently turn up in exploitation cinema, and sometimes the line separating something as ugly as I Spit on Your Grave from more ambitious works like Ms. 45 or Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill proves hopelessly blurry.
Sometimes, death-wielding fantasy women emerge on film from unlikely feminist impulses, as a means to show females as powerful rather than passive. Two recent payback's-a-bitch comedies celebrate this kind of approach, with John Tucker Must Die set in high school, and My Super Ex-Girlfriend in a comic-book setting. (In the latter, Uma Thurman plays the title role and, with the lead in Kill Bill, is sort of the avenging Amazon of the decade.)
Whether going for humor or horror, these sorts of stories are always with us, and violent, vindictive women in our culture can be traced at least as far back as Medea. The post-9/11 landscape finds a fresh perspective on violence, reconsidering America's retribution for the World Trade Center attacks and the implications of our pre-emptive war on Iraq. In some cases, women don't mete out violence so much as endorse it. In Steven Spielberg's Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) approves terrorism for political restitution, while in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, Maria Bello as the wife accepts husband Viggo Mortensen's murderous background, implying that bloodlust nourishes the American family.
A pair of unsettling films from outside the United States moves past familiar portrayals of women as victims of male oppression or mother figures protecting their young. The modest English horror film The Descent rises above its genre trappings by respecting its female protagonists, while South Korea's Lady Vengeance depicts unspeakable acts while building to a powerful statement on the justification of revenge.
TV trailers misleadingly promote The Descent as following in the viscera-dripping footsteps of Saw and Hostel. The Descent revels in its share of grisly content, but doesn't neglect the humane side of the story. Six outdoorsy, athletic women -- most of them English and old friends -- gather for a caving trip in the Appalachians. (Deliverance gets a subtle nod.) Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), grieving for her dead child, particularly hopes the getaway will have therapeutic value.
At first, The Descent celebrates the joshing camaraderie of the women, all of whom are attractive without resembling airbrushed cover girls. The self-appointed alpha female of group, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), leads her friends not to a charted cavern, but an apparently undiscovered cave for a more exciting, "extreme" bit of exploration. The spelunking expedition becomes increasingly dangerous and draws the power dynamics, survival details and claustrophobic anxieties almost unbearably taut.
It's a bit of a letdown when The Descent's monsters -- humanoid underground dwellers resembling Bat Boy of tabloid fame -- rear their pale, sightless heads. The tale becomes more than an escape from predators, however, as Sarah uncovers a betrayal within the group. She eventually rises from a red pool, gripping weapons and looking like the stepdaughter of both Sissy Spacek in Carrie and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. The American edit of The Descent reportedly changes the ending to minimize its ambiguity and maternal ideas, but the sensitivity and realism in the characters transcends the film's cheap scares.
Few filmmakers have issues as dark as South Korea's Chan-wook Park, who returns to his pet obsessions in Lady Vengeance, the final installment of a trilogy unified by the spectacle of ordinary people driven to commit atrocities. Lady has no literal connections to its predecessors, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, but spins variation on such themes as kidnapping, imprisonment and stolen innocence.
Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) walks out of prison after serving a sentence of more than 13 years. She confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old boy, but despite her claims to the contrary, we suspect that she was never the true perpetrator. Park cuts back and forth to before, during and after Geum-ja's imprisonment, keeping us a step behind the story. A sunny, born-again optimist in jail, Geum-ja emerges as hard and focused, as if she's been wearing a flawless, smiling mask for more than a decade.
One by one, we meet the prostitutes, lady bandits and other convicts who shared Geum-ja's communal cell. In prison, Geum-ja won the loyalty of each, from donating a kidney to one to killing the lesbian who terrorized another.
Geum-ja enlists each of her allies in an unspecified plan that provides her with employment, lodging, a custom-designed weapon and finally a target: a bland schoolteacher named Mr. Baek (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) who turns out to be the most vile criminal imaginable. It's the least of Baek's misdeeds when he takes his lover brutally and mechanically over the dining room table, the dishes still in place.
A kind of madness touches Park's films, which can cross the line into gratuitous sadism, capturing horrific images -- or even sound effects -- inessential to his stories. It's hard to explain away all of Park's creative choices, but his films also have an undeniable staying power that sets them above the current wave of Asian horror movies. At times it's easier to view them as striving for the catharsis of Greek tragedy rather than holding them to the rules of realism.
Films that push the "revenge is a double-edged sword" theme often feel hypocritical; they leer over violent sequences, then turn around to blast the characters and the audience for approving them. Lady Vengeance's last act takes a lurid but serious consideration of the consequences of bloodshed, however justified. The film holds out hope for Geum-ja's redemption, while suggesting that bloodstains cannot be easily removed.