Judge Michael Nazarewycz is Kickstarting a remake with an all-child cast and calling it Sympathy for Mister Rogers.
Our review of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, published December 12th, 2005, is also available.
Revenge Was Never This Sweet.
Chan-wook Park had a busy 2013. The early part of the year saw the US release of his latest directorial effort, the sensational Stoker. Mid-2013 saw the Hong Kong release of the excellent dystopian sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, which Park produced (and which has since made its way to the US). And late 2013 saw director Spike Lee release his remake of Park's Oldboy. The original Oldboy, as fine a piece of South Korean filmmaking as you will find, is the middle entry of what has been dubbed "The Vengeance Trilogy"; the third entry is Lady Vengeance.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the film that started it all.
Facts of the Case
Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin, Save the Green Planet) is in a tough spot. The deaf factory worker has been told he is not a match to donate a kidney to his sister (Ji-Eun Lim, Hwayi: A Monster Boy), who is in need of a transplant. He pursues an organ for her on the black market, but that turns out to be a scam. When he is laid off from his job and has no money left, he doesn't know what he'll do.
At the suggestion of his girlfriend, the anarchist Cha (Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas), Ryu kidnaps the young daughter of the president of the company that laid him off. He holds the child for ransom. The president, Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song, The Host), pays the ransom, but before Ryu can return the daughter, multiple tragedies strike. This devolves into a story of regret, desperation, and two men seeking vengeance: Ryu against the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin against Ryu.
As both director and co-writer, Chan-wook Park crafts tragedy that would make Shakespeare take notice. It is filmmaking—both in story and in pictures—at a level most Hollywood professionals can only dream of achieving. He first constructs characters that are simple enough to identify with, yet not so complex as to get in the way of themselves.
In dated terms, Ryu is the Proletariat. He works thanklessly hard (the factory sequence is a gem) and all he has to show for it is a pink slip (and for no apparent reason, so one assumes corporate greed is the motivating factor). And when he tries to circumvent the system, that path beats him too. His handicap makes him more sympathetic, and its specificity lends to a significant moment in the heart of Act II.
In modern terms, Dong-jin is the One Percent. You don't like him for that reason alone. If Ryu is the Hero, Dong-jin is the Villain, but only because he contributes to Ryu's woes. However, once tragedy strikes in the heart of that second act, you cannot help but feel for this divorced father, and when he takes up the mantle of vengeance, he transforms from Villain to Anti-Hero, because what happens to him is so terrible (and not as a result of his being the One Percent), you cannot help but feel for him. You also don't mind that he is after the Hero.
In addition to being key characters, Ryu's sister and Cha are a perfect counterbalance of forces in Ryu's life. His sister (a nameless character) is Ryu's delicate cause; his lover his rebellious muse. While the latter has far more screen time and is more proactive, the former is no less important. She is also a character who closes out Act I with a stunning decision.
With a perfect set of characters in place, Park tells a story spotlighting a specific emotion in each of the three acts.
Act I is Desperation, led by Ryu and his situation, and amplified by Dong-jin and his. They couldn't be more opposite, these two men, and yet they find themselves victims of circumstances and prisoners of this emotion. Park's direction here is so measured and deliberate, and the tale so rich, it's the equivalent of an entire film stuffed into one third of that.
Act II is Tragedy. To elaborate would be to rob you of an emotional experience the likes of which most complete films have never achieved. It is impossible to overstate the intensity and gravity of this piece of filmmaking. It is wrought with a tension comparable to watching terrible events unfold in near-slow motion, and being entirely helpless to stop them. This is where Park's direction shines. Every scene, every frame, is so decadent that you are conflicted as a viewer because you want to see more of the beauty of the art, but that means witnessing more of the tragedy of the tale. There is a funeral scene in this act that is as powerful a moment as I've witnessed on film.
Act III is Revenge. It's that simple, that visceral. Ryu wants his. Dong-jin wants his. Both men are tireless in their pursuit of it. If you have ever seen a South Korean thriller, you know the treat you are in for. If you haven't…brace yourself.
As a whole, Park takes you through a dark and dizzying series of tragic events, and he does so while treating you like you have a brain. Things that need to be explained are explained, but many things that don't need to be simply aren't. This allows for less clutter—visually and thematically—which allows for more art.
By the end of the film, I was emotionally exhausted in the best possible way.
Palisades Tartan's presentation of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Blu-ray) is spectacular. The 2.35:1/1080p HD transfer offers great clarity, particularly in scenes where there is considerable detail, especially when that detail is in the background. It also showcases Byeong-il Kim's (Untold Scandal) beautifully suppressed cinematography. Unlike many Asian films, which offer considerable contrast in colors, Kim's eye is keen on a hazier palate, with more earth tones than one might expect, and colors that aren't so much blanched as they are un-stylized.
The Korean language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is flawless. This is a film dealing in a broad range of sound. The bulk of audio involves silent, pensive moments, but Park is so skilled a filmmaker, he understands the importance of ambient noise in those quiet moments. Clear sounds of varying distance and output levels fill the main action, and even sounds partially muted for effect sound great in HD. Also clear are primary sounds that are supposed to be offscreen (a pair of autopsies, for example), and even the occasional loud moments—Ryu's factory scenes are the loudest—are very well defined.
In addition to an audio commentary track with director Park and actor/filmmaker Ryoo Seong-wan, there is a wealth of bonus material.
* The Process of Mr. Vengeance (Making Of)—Clocking in at a healthy 32:05, this behind-the-scenes piece covers a lot of making-of territory, beginning with lessons at sign language school and the challenges of remembering those "lines". The lead actors discuss their characters, special effects are showcased, and there are loads of interviews with the actors and the director alike.
* My Bosku—This 17:22 featurette offers deeper reflections from actors Song, Bae, Shin, and Lim, as well as the adorable Bo-Bae Han, who plays the kidnapped little girl.
* Crew Interviews—Sit back and enjoy another 40:03 of interviews, this time as members of the film's crew—including Park, Director of Photography Kim, Lighting Technician Hyun-Won Park, and others—discuss myriad technical and filmmaking aspects of the movie. Oddly, the special effects showcases that were part of the Making Of are also repeated here.
* Storyboards—This entry gives you just that—storyboards from the film. The great twist of the 9:57 offering is the use of audio from the film over the storyboards. Plus, some of the boards a crudely (but delightfully) animated.
* Original Theatrical Trailer—This is the unrestored, 1:47 trailer. Its age shows, but that only adds to the nostalgia (and it's great how the film is referred to as "Another myth in Korean cinema").
* Soundtrack and Photos—For 1:51, you get a slideshow of production stills set to the film's score. If anything, many of the pics flash by too fast.
* Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook—This final extra, at 16:58, looks like it's a promotional piece made to be seen on TV in conjuncture with the release of the film. It covers this film, as well as previous films from the director.
Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy comes with two interesting caveats. The first is that the three films in the trilogy have no connection whatsoever; they were dubbed a trilogy because they share strong thematic similarities (revenge, regret, devastating tragedy, children). The second is that each entry in the trilogy is so good, to call one of them "the best of the three" invites no arguments—not even from those that might consider a different entry to be "the best." When judging the best, everyone is right—even on this film. The Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Blu-ray) is a must-own of the highest order.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
Review content copyright © 2014 Michael Nazarewycz; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.