Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

If Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ is intended as a critique of violence, it’s a repetitive and unsubtle one.

Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot) (2002), now on Region 1 DVD for the first time, is the initial film in the director’s planned “revenge trilogy.” Oldboy (released in Asia in 2003, but sent to US screens slightly before Sympathy) and the forthcoming Lady Vengeance complete the group. Although the films share no characters and could be viewed in any order, there is a kind of relief in finding out that Sympathy arrived first.

While Oldboy is driven by a simple plot hook (a man is mysteriously kidnapped and locked in a room for many years, then seeks revenge), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is comprised of relentless manipulations. Deaf-mute Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is desperate to pay for a kidney transplant for his ailing sister. After an ill-advised attempt at a black market trade leaves him minus money and one of his own kidneys, he and his anarchist girlfriend Cha (Du-na Bae) decide to kidnap and ransom the daughter of Ryu’s former boss, Park (Kang-ho Song). Every character I’ve mentioned so far, plus a few others, figures in at least one revenge plot, sometimes more.

Such overkill may function as a critique of the sort of senseless killing featured in other movies, because no violent act is allowed to pass without inspiring an equally ugly response. Which is not to say the film is only a violent “message” picture. It includes terrific flashes of humor, as when Cha, after meeting with the black market crooks to instigate a vengeful set-up, hands each of the crooks a flyer for her anarchist group.

Certainly, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is well made: the compositions, especially images from a lake where Ryu and his sister used to play as children, are clean and sharp and look especially elegant on the DVD’s widescreen transfer. In the subtitled director’s commentary, Park goes into great detail about the technical side of the film, explaining his choices in editing, photography, sets, and everything else. Towards the beginning of the commentary, Park says: “I tried to fully utilize the surround sound-mixing technique. Nobody noticed.” “What a pity,” adds his co-commentator, Seung-wan Ryu (who has a bit part in the film and is a director himself).

My sympathies are with Park; he is working at a level of detail not always noticed by general audiences, and his comments about the filmmaking process are frank and informative. (Even when the oft-repeated comment that a shot or an idea is “interesting” becomes redundant; perhaps this is due to the translation into English.)

But I couldn’t help but feel, during the film, that I might also be oblivious to what Park has in mind, not for overlooking the impeccable technical credentials, but for missing the movie they’re supposed to add up to. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance itself is sometimes tedious. The film’s sheer volume of vengeance is so great, pacing so deliberate, and confrontations so inevitable, that the experience is not unlike watching the climax of a film noir stretched out over 90 minutes. (Hollywood action movies cram in as many climaxes as possible; this alternate approach turns out to be not much more productive.)

So if Sympathy is truly intended as a critique of violence, it’s a repetitive and unsubtle one. Perhaps the DVD itself, despite the pretty transfer and informative commentary, contributes to the feeling of tedium. It’s possible that this film would mesmerize in a theater, its stark images projected on a larger screen, and with a full sound system at its advantage.

Oddly, the most enticing extra on the disc is a “First Look” at the forthcoming Lady Vengeance. It includes about two minutes of footage, half from a single (and uneventful, if somewhat foreboding) scene. What little we see looks less studied and more eloquent than Sympathy. Perhaps the director has found a more involving outlet for his considerable skill. Even after a somewhat disappointing DVD experience, it’s heartening to think that Chan-wook Park is still developing.

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