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
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
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
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
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Posted: December 9, 2005.