Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Jesse Hassenger

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.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Du-na Bae
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Tartan
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2005-11-22
Amazon affiliate

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 U.S. 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 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 wide screen 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 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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.