At the request of Mick Jagger, Judge Joel Pearce is saving his sympathy for the devil.
I know you're a good guy. So you know the reason why…I have to kill you?
I've read a lot of reviews that call Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance Chan-wook Park's follow-up to Oldboy. It's not. Although it has taken longer to reach North America, it's actually the first part of Park's vengeance trilogy (the third is Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, released theatrically in Korea in 2005). It's important to think of it as coming first, because it begins a trajectory that will run through all three films. I see the wisdom of releasing Oldboy first, as many will be disappointed by the bleak viciousness of Park's first revenge film. That said, those with the patience and stomach for it will be rewarded: This is one hell of a movie.
Facts of the Case
Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin, Save the Green Planet) isn't the most brilliant guy around, but he's kind and takes good care of his seriously ill sister (Ji-Eun Lim). He's also a deaf-mute, but is obviously able to take care of himself. He holds down a job, and is saving money for his sister's kidney transplant, which she needs soon if she is to live. Ryu makes the unfortunate decision to trade one of his kidneys to save her, and gets cheated out of his life savings (and an organ) by an unscrupulous surgeon and her two hulking sons.
When a matching kidney later becomes available, Ryu can no longer afford it. His wannabe revolutionary girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae, Tube) convinces him to kidnap the daughter of wealthy President Park (Kang-ho Song, JSA), who fired Ryu from his job. When the kidnapping goes horribly wrong, everyone is left hurting and searching for revenge.
Whoever wrote the tagline "revenge was never this sweet" obviously didn't see the movie that I just did. More than anything else, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is an achingly sad, uncomfortable tragedy. We watch in horror as the characters make terrible choices, hurling themselves into a conflict that will destroy them all.
It's all remarkably exquisite, though, thanks to the beautiful realization of both characters and scenes. Ha-kyun Shin, who was so convincing in Save the Green Planet, puts in another stunning performance as the deaf-mute Ryu. Although he never speaks, he uses facial expressions and sign language to create a fully developed and believable character. He is a character that we can sympathize with, but who never becomes a simple victim of his own fate. Kang-ho Sang is great paired with Shin, as he once again builds a solid persona despite limited screen time. Park's transformation from loving father to murderous avenger is quite short, and a lesser performance would have made the film almost unwatchable. Neither of their characters is particularly likable, but they are both so incredibly real that it hurts to watch them go through so much pain.
The supporting characters help to create a tone that is surreal but also believable. The police detectives are appropriately baffled, Ryu's sister is just as convincing as he is, and Cha Yeong-mi is a great wild card. The relationships between these characters are complex, especially the sign language conversations between Yeong-mi and Ryu. In a few brief exchanges, we can understand clearly why they love and need each other, and what they would be willing to do to protect each other.
Park's direction is what really stands out here, though. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a bizarre mix of arthouse craftsmanship and cult sensibilities. While Oldboy and JSA both demonstrated his ability to move the camera with grace and style, Mr. Vengeance is almost uncomfortably static. The camera watches the events quietly from the background, as if unwilling to get involved in the tragic events. Still, Park tells much with his visuals, making the film as much a visceral experience as an intellectual one. In this particular case, he has used some remarkable sound design as well. The grittier moments are not as graphic as some I have seen, but the sound design makes them unsettling and cringe-inducing.
Which brings me to my only complaint. I'm not sure what the point of the whole film is—it has to be more complicated than the obvious message that revenge always leads to more violence. This film is bigger than that. While Oldboy is plenty gritty, it's also an absolute blast. The moments of humor turn it into a very clever roller coaster ride. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, on the other hand, has little in the way of humor. There are a few funny moments, but they are so brief that they barely offer a break from the unrelenting pain that the characters suffer. I wonder if this is Park's way of pointing out that sometimes we are compelled to do things that we would never imagine, and that the acts of revenge themselves are as inevitable as the violent aftermath. Any of us would do reprehensible things if put in the right situation.
Of course, that's a message that's been told countless times as well. I'm not sure it's ever been presented in as riveting fashion as this, though. Although Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a slow moving film, there was never a moment that my eyes weren't glued to the screen. Like the best Shakespearean tragedies, each player is set up carefully, so that each one causes as much damage as possible on the way down to rock bottom. The acts of revenge are inventive, primitive, and gut-wrenching, as are the events that set them in motion. I'm not sure whether it's common for family members to observe autopsies in Korea, but that sequence is one of the most intense I have ever seen. There's a dark, angry energy that runs just beneath the surface of the film, controlled just enough that the end result is still a great film. Since some of that anger was missing in Oldboy, it will be interesting to see how Park's outlook on revenge changes with the final chapter of his vengeance trilogy.
Tartan Films has delivered another excellent DVD package. The video is sharp and clean, especially during the outdoor sequences, which involve a lot of flowing water and moving grass. Even the best DVD manufacturers have a hard time handling that much motion, but these scenes look great on this disc. The only problem is some noticeable edge enhancement, which is a serious flaw in a film with so much visual contrast.
The sound, on the other hand, is flawless. The DTS track is subtle and powerful, filling the sound stage and adding quite an emotional punch. The Dolby 5.1 track is also strong, but is a bit flatter.
There are not many extras on the disc, just a sneak peek at Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and a subtitled commentary track with Chan-wook Park and Korean director Ryu Seung-wang. It's a very technical commentary, but they also discuss Park's ideas in detail. With a film this well crafted, it's always interesting to hear these discussions.
Unlike some of Park's other films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn't recommended for everyone. It's a challenging, vicious film, and many people will be overwhelmed by the violence and coldness of it all. Fans of thrillers with strong stomachs will be mesmerized by it, though. It stays with one for days afterwards. If you enjoyed Oldboy for its zany fun, I can't promise you'll be satisfied by this film. The unsettling work of a brilliant filmmaker, it is just as good a film, though.
It isn't a film I would bring to a party, but Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and all involved are free to go. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Commentary Track
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