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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 09/11/05 20:49:07

"A tragedy that proves even the WORST laid plans often go awry."
5 stars (Awesome)

By turns horrifying and heartbreaking, richly laced with writer-director Park Chan-wook’s trademark irony, pitch-black humor, and brutality, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tragedy of operatic proportions, a lesson in the havoc wreaked on human lives as the result of good but insanely misguided intentions gone hideously awry.

Once an aspiring artist, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute, has abandoned his dream to care for his beloved sister who is dying a slow and agonizing death for want of a kidney. Learning that he is an incompatible donor, Ryu turns to the black market and loses not only his own kidney but the W100,000 he has painstakingly saved for his sister’s transplant. When, in a bitterly stunning irony, a legitimate donor becomes available at the same time Ryu is laid off from his job as a welder in an electronics factory, his militantly anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na) berates him for his stupidity at the same time she hatches the idea of raising the needed cash by kidnapping the small daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Song Kang-ho) – a child-snatching act she deems “good” because no one will get hurt, the child will be returned unharmed after the money is delivered, and the ransom demand will cover not only the W100,000 needed for the surgery but will include some extra capital for Yeong-mi’s political coffers. When not one but two tragic deaths occur – the first as a direct result of the kidnapping, the other an unintended accident – Ryu and Yeong-mi become engulfed in a vortex of revenge that not only destroys their own lives but sweeps up and annihilates everyone with whom their paths cross.

The first installment in Park’s so-called “revenge trilogy” – the second being Oldboy, and the third Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which has its North America premieres this year at the Toronto and New York film festivals – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shares a common theme with those, as it does with Park’s segment of Three…Extremes, entitled “Cut,” and bears the director’s indelible fingerprint. Still, it is as marked in its differences from Oldboy as it is in its similarities to it.

Where Oldboy features a quintessential villain and a flawed but sympathetic hero, one has the sense, with the characters in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, of dealing with inherently honorable people rendered insane by crushing sorrow. In one wrenching scene, a man confesses to another, “I know you’re a good guy, but you understand why I have to kill you.” We, too, fully understand that this man is ashamed of his own degradation at the same time we just as clearly fathom his pain and his response to it.

One of the “stars” of Oldboy is its hypnotic soundtrack, an original score composed by Jo Yeong-wook using as a basis classic movie titles – among them Jailhouse Rock, Room at the Top, Cries and Whispers, Breathless, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Point Blank, The Big Sleep, and The Last Waltz. Conversely, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is often silent and almost totally music-free, its background “score” devoted to ambient sounds such as those of a machine shop, a plummeting elevator, a TV cartoon show, and a coffin being slid into a fiery oven.

Of the two films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the far more visually striking, thanks to the brilliant cinematography of DP Kim Byung-il, whose credits also include the lushly gorgeous Untold Scandal.

What Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy share are wicked streaks of deadpan humor to leaven the horror. Featured prominently in the former are scenes such as the one depicting a black-marketeer purchasing an ice cream cake – then dumping it in the street, since all he really wants is the ice packaging; another of a naked Yeong-mi, mounted on Ryu, bouncing energetically, her hands moving as rapidly as her hips as she engages in sex talk – in Korean sign language; yet another in which Yeong-mi confronts the black-marketeers – and can’t resist handing each of them a copy of her propagandist leaflet before she leaves.

What both films also share – “100% certain” – will be as many detractors who are turned off by their brutality and bleakness as fans who are exhilarated by the graphically disturbing artistry at work. I don’t see too many “just OKs” in either title’s future.

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