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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

MOVIE REVIEWS

SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2005)

Starring Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Doo-na, Lim Ji-Eun, Han Bo-bae, Kim Se-dong, Lee Dae-yeon, Jeong Jae-yeong, Lee Kan-hie, Oh Kwang-rok, Ryoo Seung-wan and Ryu Seung-beom.  

Screenplay by Lee Jong-yong, Lee Moo-young and Park Ridame.

Directed by Park Chan-wook.

Distributed by Tartan Films.  122 minutes.  Rated R.

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

After the surprise inroads that Park Chan-wook's violent fable Oldboy made last year -- winning the Cannes Film Festival and gaining the allegiance of fan-boy critics everywhere -- the first part of the director's "Vengeance" series is getting a belated release.  (It was released in Korea in 2002.)  Oldboy was chapter two of the trilogy -- the third part (which I've seen called both Lady Vengeance or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is just starting to make the festival rounds.

Calling it a trilogy from the two I have seen is taking the term very loosely -- other than the themes of retribution, the sordid and yet oddly beautiful Korean locations, the terribly bleak world-view and the grand-guignol violence the first two movies have no real common ground -- at least no recurring characters or locales.

Oddly, while Oldboy was clearly a better-made and superior movie, I probably enjoyed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance a little bit more.  I know I'm going completely against the grain of most people who see these films, but particularly nice for me was that the oppressive and gruesome violence that suffused the other film does not really show up until the last 45 minutes or so -- although when it comes it is an avalanche of grotesquerie and blood.  Some people obviously enjoy this over-the-top mayhem, for me a little goes a long way and if you keep having "top this" moments of cruelty it eventually just becomes numbing. 

Which is too bad, because the storyline of the movie has all the makings of a great tragedy.  It starts with Ryu, a deaf and dumb factory worker with neon green hair.  His beloved, sainted sister is going through liver failure and is low on the list for a transplant.  Ryu can't give her his own because he has a different blood type.  Therefore Ryu does a desperate act, going to the black market and agreeing to give all his money and his own kidney to get the organ for his sister.  When he is ripped off by the criminals -- of both the money and his kidney, a legal kidney becomes available, but he no longer has the money to get it for his sister. 

He listens to his anarchist girlfriend (Bae Doo-Na), who suggests that the way to get the money is to kidnap the daughter of his former boss, Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho).  The boss is shown as an unfeeling, money-hungry man who does not care at all for his employees, as is vividly demonstrated on film.  The two kidnappers will take wonderful care of the girl, not only not hurting her but making sure she has more fun with them than she would at home.  They will only ask for a small amount that is needed for the operation.  The rich guy will never miss the money but it will save them.  It will be the perfect crime.     

Of course, perfect crimes never turn out that way.  A tragic accident and a suicide changes everything and suddenly the movie shifts into revenge mode.  Ryu is hunting the black market dealers who stole his money, his organ and destroyed his life.  At the same time, the boss is following him to avenge his daughter. 

All of the earlier tragic events that befall these characters suddenly get swallowed up by unreasonable revenge plots in which all the characters end up being destroyed one way or another.  Therefore, any sympathy that we may have been able to build up for these characters -- one man loses his daughter, another one has a dying sister -- fades away when you see the horrific acts that they are capable of.  Everyone may have good reasons, but they still do awful, inhuman things in the name of these fine reasons.

Director Park Chan-wook has an interesting, evocative visual style, though he does more than occasionally throw in weird shots and angles -- apparently for no other reason than because he can.  He also will throw needlessly eccentric characters into the mix for no particular reason, one that comes to mind immediately is a mentally challenged and physically handicapped man who lurches into a few scenes by a lake for no particular reason other than to be yet another obstacle. 

The writer-director also has a worldview which is so harsh and so jaded that it can be a little hard to stomach.  The tragedies in this movie are in biblical, Shakespearean proportions.  No one, even the peripheral characters, are allowed more than a moment of happiness, and even those appear hollow and empty.  Instead, most of the people in Park Chan-wook's world traffic in torture, depravity and unspeakable anger. 

There are no winners in this story, nobody who makes it out unscathed, in some way or another every major character has to pay for their mistakes and the cruelty of fate.  If this is the way that you view the world, then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (we never really know if Mr. Vengeance is supposed to be Ryu or Dong-jin, though I suppose that was supposed to be the point) will be stunning and arresting theater.  For the rest of us it is a technically accomplished and beautifully moody work that is too disturbing to look at as the real world.   (12/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright 2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 9, 2005.

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Copyright 2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 9, 2005.

 

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