Abstract for AKSE 2021

The present paper examines the ways in which music comments on the perception of Protestant Christianity in modern Korea in Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance (2005). While the film’s heavy use of Baroque music, mostly of Vivaldi’s, has received some scholarly attention, the following three songs, all of which, I shall argue, hearken back to Christian themes of birth and death, and redemption, remain hardly explored: hymn, lullaby, and ‘Happy Birthday to You’. Drawing on the published interviews with and writings of Park, I show that these songs represent the director’s response to the ‘pressing issues’ of Protestantism, which exerts ‘unrivalled power and influence’ in Korean society.

I begin at the beginning, the opening scene in which a choir sings a Protestant hymn ‘My path is ridden with high walls and deep pitfalls’ to celebrate the release of Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae). It is the first music, other than the one accompanying the opening credits, we hear in the film. I make a point that the hymn is an original song written specifically for the film, thereby challenging the verisimilitude of diegetic world in which Christian ethics are to be tested.

If the hymn introduces the theme of Protestantism, the next two songs I discuss complicate the matter further. The first is ‘Mareta, mareta, no’m faces plorar’ (Mommy, Dear Mommy, Don’t Make Me Cry), a Catalan lullaby played throughout the film. Most of the time it is heard non-diegetically, with the exception of one scene in which Geum-ja hums the song to her daughter Jenny, who, having been adopted by Australian parents, does not speak or understand Korean. The lullaby is not a religious, or for that matter Protestant Christian, song in itself, but what it signifies—giving birth, nursing, in short what it means to be a ‘mother’—offers insights into Geum-ja’s saintly conversion to Christianity and the perception of women who are not mothers in Korean society.

Then ‘Happy Birthday to You’, sung by the ‘avengers’ at Geum-ja’s bakery for the abducted and murdered children who did not grow up to see their next birthdays, is no less bound by the Christian themes of birth and death, and, more important, redemption. Commemorating death by celebrating birth, the act of vengeance is made ‘pure like tofu’, and this neatly corresponds to the ‘Fade to Black and White version’ of the film, in which the colour gradually fades towards the end. Like the hymn in the opening scene, ‘Happy Birthday’ is chanted by a choir of avengers, through which the director seems to ask, ‘Now who is more ethical, Protestants or avengers?’. Insofar as its music is concerned, Lady Vengeance is a Christian film par excellence, even more so than Park’s other work Thirst (2009), which directly confronts the theme of Christianity in Korean society. (463 words)