(Release Date: March 29, 2002)
(US Release Date: June 14, 2002 [Seattle International Film Festival])
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the lesser known first entry in Park Chan-wook's Revenge Trilogy and, like the sophomore effort, Oldboy, it not only relies on more blood than Dracula could down in an evening, but also ironic black humor and the escalating depravity that pushes the boundaries of what could possibly get worse from here. Man, oh, man every bottom floor has a basement right underneath it.
Observe: Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is rejected from donating his own back-bean for his sister's surgery because he has the wrong damned blood type. Now that sucks. The suck turns into a vacuum when Ryu is fired from his already crappy job. Now I don't know how many want ads you've seen for green-haired deaf Korean dudes, but the list for me begins and ends at zero. If his life is a diaper, guess what... it's about to fill up! Just as frowning Ryu discovers a saving grace (in the form of an illegal band of organ harvesters) for his sister (Lim Ji-eun), things to indeed get a few points higher on the crap-o-matic scale. See, to get a kidney, Ryu has to give a kidney to these urinary pirates in return. That and his entire life savings.
Right about at the time that he finds himself lying naked on the floor of an abandoned warehouse, penniless, with a hole in his back and no renal reward in sight, things start going downhill for him. Yeah, see, in retrospect, that's the HAPPY part of this movie!
To gloss over a gory detail or five, Yeong-mi (the aforementioned hot, chain smoking, communist, terrorist, erstwhile naked girlfriend, played by Bae Du-na) convinces Ryu to kidnap the daughter of his rich ex-boss, company President Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho) and hold her for enough ransom to pay for the kidney surgery his sister so desperately needs (the kidney suddenly became available around the time of Ryu's now-superfluous nephrology nightmare). Do I have to tell you that the kidnapping (and most everything else) goes horribly wrong, and is soon spinning down the proverbial crapper faster than the syndication rights of "The John Goodman Show"? Verily, faster than you can say "Normal, Ohio", Ryu is in over his green head and is sure to be suffering like Cher on a sad solo album.
As in Oldboy, director (and co-writer) Park muddies the waters surrounding just who is acting out their vengeance for which wrong (multiple parties having a right to revenge multiple grievances), but here, Park dispenses with the mystery and thrusts the entire thing skillfully into our faces. The thrills in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance come from the storytelling, which can be both touching and horrific (often at the same damned time). As the first hour ends the second kicks off with a new angle on this continuing, singular theme as Mr. Vengeance carries out his vengeful response.
As our antagonized protagonist traverses the slums of South Korea through the bloody trail of what really happened, Park (and fellow screenwriters Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong and Lee Yong-jong) rely far less on gore and wince-worthy human damage to tell this story. That said, it's pretty damned sick, intentionally so, and definitely not for the kiddies. There is quite a lot of deeply disturbing imagery in this film, but much more on the psychological level than the vomitous anatomy lessons that the true splatter dramas have been offering up of late. (At least not solely that... a certain sequence gapes out at me and calls me a liar. Make that sequences...) Further, the black comedy angle is amplified to an almost surreal degree in this movie. The act of scaring, moving, arousing, disgusting and amusing the audience all at the same time is an uncomfortable situation at best, and more so when the experiment becomes a rousing success.
While, like any in the trilogy, this first film can be very hard to watch at times, the best part is that this one truly lives up to its name as we find sympathy for the revengers here (as sick as that may sound). There's good and bad here, but truth be told, this is one hell of a film, often unpredictable, often ironic, and often of that strange category in which one knows exactly what is coming, but relishes the outcome nonetheless. Intentional or not, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is an outside the box comment on the proverbial "Cycle of Violence".
Four Stars out of Five for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (or "Vengeance is Mine", as the actual Korean title translates). I'd like to give a special shout-out to the much appreciated nude scene offered up to us by Ryu's hot communist terrorist chain smoking abusive girlfriend. If revenge is a dish best served cold, you're the Tabasco in the porridge, baby! Way to make a hard to watch flick easy to drool over. Readers, you go check out Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, right in time for your viewing of Lady Vengeance and feel free to play the hot part over and over... I will see you bouncing beautifully in the next reel. No need to take revenge for that shot, lady! There should be a special clause in all revenge tragedies that a nude scene from a hot Korean chick should trump the moral entitlement of the sinister minister kind of guy out for revenge. Or is that just me? Think about it before you answer... it might have made Hamlet a different play, but that would probably float well for Ophelia, no?
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