Sympathy For Mr Vengeance

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance

***1/2

Reviewed by: Heimdal

I have this thing with Asian popular culture. I love Japanese role playing games.

Recently I have ventured into the world of anime and think those exaggerated martial arts movies are fab. I greedily watch the haircuts, the fashion and find the incomprehensible phonetics pleasant to the ear.

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A few years back, I saw a Korean action film at the annual Stockholm film festival. It was called Volcano High and featured bright coloured characters with hysterical facial expressions, battling it out in a Korean Hogwart-type school for adolescents. The action was frantic, the special effects amazing and the characters totally over the top. Needless to say it was a great deal of fun.

Back to our current film of choice. If you have drawn any conclusions from my brief notes about Volcano High, you are in for a surprise. Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is as far from ordinary Korean action film as The Royal Tenenbaums is from Dumb And Dumber. Both can be associated with comedy, but that's it. Likewise, in Sympathy For Mr Vengeance only the dim semantics of the word action, or rather action thriller, can be linked to other contemporary Korean fare.

The film made an uproar in its home country by dismissing the popular conventions of the genre. Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is dark. It's as unsettling as waiting on a operation table. After watching it, you do not feel entertained, only relieved that it's finally finished, which does not mean it's bad; it means it robs you of hope.

If you havent seen the all-too-revealing DVD case you wouldn't even suspect what is to come in this neatly shot, esthetically tasteful film. The story of deaf mute Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), his lethally ill sister and spunk girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi, devolpes in the most unsettling way.

It starts as a crossover between drama and comedy. We get to know the central character, as well as his troubles (sister needs kidney transplant) and joys (his girlfriend, played by the charming and tres cool Doona Bae.) When Ryu gets involved with illegal organ dealers, trying to pay them off to remove one of his kidneys - its supposed to be transplanted into his sister in order to save her life - the journey downward begins.

The organ dealers are a bunch of lowlife criminals. While accepting the money, they con Ryu, leaving him naked to die. Then Cha Yeong-mi comes up with the idea to kidnap the daughter of Ryu's former employer to press him for the money needed for the transplant. When they carry out the plan, the film descends into a territory where one of the most primitive of human impulses will shatter the fragile existential hut in which we collectively huddle.

Here something interesting happens with the narrative structure. Instead of keeping the focus on Ryu, it switches to Park Dong-jin, father of the kidnapped girl Yoosoon. When Yoossoon accidentally dies before she is handed over, her father is devastated. The subtle facial expressions of actor Kang-ho Song are mesmerizing and he is immensly credible and present in every scene.

From now on, when the film alternates focus between the three main characters, we feel uncomfortable. The trouble is that one of them has made up his mind to kill the other two and what's worse, given the circumstances, it is understandable.

The outcome will satisfy gore fanatics and Nietzschan misantropes. The film features some of the most unbearable violence on screen and although it won't burst, the impression it leaves will last and kick your brain right where it hurts. Afterwards you may feel sick, even regretful that you watched it. But that is the point.

Sympathy For Mr Vengance is supposed to be intimidating and not pat its audience on the back. It even dares to take a humorous approach to its heavy subject matter. Like Dutch director Michael Haneke, there is also social criticism. Some will surely be put off by the gore, or the controversy. Others, like myself, will be somewhat confused by the infusion of absurd, surreal elements - there is a real comic jerk off scene at the beginning, a David Lynch-type crippled character and an unecessary flirtation with Japanese ghost themes - that verge on cool-without-susbstance.

The film feels fashionable and style-conscious, with Ryu's green hair and his lively Communist It-girl. She's the unattainable ideal of thousands of adolescent indiepop girls. Here is a director who knows how to avoid the American habit of being too obvious in both action and moral.

Sympathy For Mr Vengeane is an ecclectic fusion of different genres and a modern installation of Macbeth. It is also a film that has no feelings for its characters, leaving the viewer in a state of disgust and resentment.

Most of all it is a skillful, stylish kick in the head, aimed at those who see violence as the answer to every problem. And although it lacks hope and redemption, I suggest you give it your full attention.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2005
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Sympathy For Mr Vengeance packshot
South Korean tale of kidnap and revenge, with torture and violence thown in. Now out to own as part of the Vengeance Trilogy box set.
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Read more Sympathy For Mr Vengeance reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Park Jong-yong, Park Chan-wook

Starring: Shin Ha-kyun, Song Kang-ho, Doona Bae, Lim Ji-eun

Year: 2002

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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