Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Cast:
Ha-Kyun Shin as Ryu
Kang-Ho Song as Dongjin
Donna Bae as Youngmi
Song Kang-ho as Park Dong-jin

Summary:
Sympathy is a competent revenge fantasy, but the slow pace, the time it takes to get to the plot, and the lack of clear definition between good and bad makes it a less immediate effort than Park Chan-Wook’s follow-up, Oldboy.

Story:
Ryu is a poor young man, deaf and mute since birth, who needs to come up with the money to pay for an operation for his adoring sister. When he gets ripped off, quite literally, by crooked black market organ hustlers, he and his revolutionary girlfriend decide to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin to get the money for the operationÂ… only for things to go horribly wrong.

Analysis:
We’ve already decided that there’s something in Korean waters that makes the country’s filmmakers look at things slightly skewed–I present Save the Green Planet! and the collective works of Kim Ki-Duk as Exhibits A through G. Director Park Chan-Wook is still the best known of the Korean wack pack, because his Oldboy may have been responsible for thousands of therapy dollars going to waste for anyone who’s seen it.

It’s a shame that it’s taken so long for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance to find theatrical distribution here, because while you want to watch and appreciate it for its own merits, it’s impossible to escape the ever-present shadow of Oldboy looming over it. It’s not quite fair, since it’s like trying to compare the brilliantly conceived Pulp Fiction with the more visceral and direct Reservoir Dogs.

That said, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not quite as action-packed or visually interesting as Oldboy, and it takes its sweet time getting to the real plot. The main character—and its hard to call him a protagonist for reasons that will later become obvious–might remind some of Kim Ki-Duk’s silent hero from 3-Iron, and like in that movie, the amount of dialogue in the movie is immediately cut in half because of it, leaving Park having to ably tell the story through the visuals. We learn a lot about this young man, as we see him with his sister, his wacky girlfriend and at work, but while a lot of this set up to develop the character is interesting, very little really adds to the actual story, which is about the kidnapping. Even after they grab the boss’ young daughter, the movie continues to move at a snail’s pace, so anyone expecting another Oldboy like thrill ride might lose patience. Park seems to be a lot more deliberate in building things up slowly, while not sticking with one setting for too long.

It takes over an hour before we start seeing the gory violence that Park’s fans will be expecting, and he’s certainly at his sick and twisted best once it starts, but in this case, his influences are far more apparent. The kidnapping plot gone wrong is a regular staple of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, so the results won’t be too horrifying for anyone who finds an amusement with a leg sticking out of a wood chipper ala Fargo. Jury-rigged electric chairs, box cutters across the chest and spraying jugulars are just part of the gory fun that drives the movie, as Park uses his ability to make your skin crawl, often without really showing anything. As always seems to be the case, it’s just as hard to look away as it is to watch.

Park also gives the movie more of a David Lynchian spin with his stream of visual non-sequiturs. In one scene, a strange gimp-like man enters the picture, looking like a freakish Frankenstein monster, an unexpected intrusion that causes laughter at first, but then causes you to wonder if you missed something. Chances are that, like Lynch, it’s done simply to freak you out or throw the viewers off.

During the course of the movie, it becomes far less clear who you should be rooting for. Ryu’s boss starts out as an evil corporate boss with no feelings towards the people he callously fires, but he actually ends up becoming the hero once his adorable young daughter is kidnapped, and he desperately tries to find her and get revenge on her kidnappers. The problem is that we already have been given just as many reasons to empathize and root for Ryu and his girlfriend, so it’s not so easy to switch allegiances midway through the movie.

Ultimately, everyone in this movie comes to an ugly end, completing the cycle of revenge, but as you leave the theatre, you’re left wondering which of the characters Park meant to be “Mr. Vengeance” and for which one of them you’re supposed to have the sympathy.

The Bottom Line:
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn’t quite as well conceived or immediate as Oldboy, but those who appreciate the wacky world of the Coen Brothers or have a morbid fascination with David Lynch should appreciate Park’s twisted sense of humor in this often vicious revenge thriller.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance opens in New York today.

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