September 2, 2008

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy follows the story of Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a deaf-mute factory worker living with his ailing sister who needs a kidney transplant. He gets laid off from his job and, desperate and broke, he meets with a shady group of black marketers who promise that if he sells them one of his kidneys, they’ll find a match for his sister. (Ryu and his sister are not the same blood type.) He agrees, but when he wakes up from the surgery, he’s naked and alone in an empty field.

Returning home, Ryu has two goals: find the people who did this to him, and kidnap the daughter of Park (Kang-ho Song), the president of his former employer. He achieves the latter with the help of a girlfriend-revolutionary (Du-na Bae) and without his sister’s knowledge of the plan. But once his sister does learn that the little girl in their apartment was kidnapped and not a playmate, things take a deadly turn for nearly everyone involved – especially when Park begins to extract his own revenge on his daughter’s kidnappers.

Sounds pretty intriguing, right? Well, a revenge tale is only as good as how much we feel for the person seeking the revenge. Unfortunately, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance doesn’t let you form that crucial bond with any of the characters pursuing retribution. Even though Ryu was robbed of a kidney, he’s such a one-dimensional character that we feel little pity for him – and even less once he kidnaps the innocent little girl.

The near-total absence of dialogue and musical score slows the film down to a painful plod. This attempt by director Chan-wook Park to give us an idea of Ryu’s silent world is noble, but ultimately it creates an empty experience.

And while the idea of parallel quests for vengeance is novel, the interest in this approach fades fast as Park mistakenly uses a maddeningly slow pace for building suspense: We spend nearly every scene waiting. For. Something. To. Happen.

By the time revenge is dished out (in torturous, gruesome displays with the apparent hope it will outweigh earlier boredom), we frankly don’t care. We feel for none of these sub-humans, and when they meet their demise, good riddance.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is considered the first film in Park’s “vengeance trilogy,” followed by the vastly superior (yet even more brutal) Oldboy (2003) and the unsettling Lady Vengeance (2005). Seek out those two and avoid Sympathy, because frankly, it doesn’t deserve any.

Korean, with subtitles.

Rating: 1½ stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
If you have tweens or teens who seek out gory films or are up on Asian Extreme cinema, Sympathy may grab their interest. But if you tell them that it’s a boring two-hour Korean film with subtitles, it should distract them from watching it.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I highly doubt it. I didn’t even consider asking my FilmMother if she’d want to watch this with me. Then again, if your FilmMother is a fan of Asian Extreme films, steer her toward Oldboy or Lady Vengeance.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
* Director: Park Chan-wook
* Screenwriters: Park Chan-wook, Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Yong-jong
* Stars: Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Du-na, Lim Ji-Eun, Han Bo-bae, Kim Se-dong, Lee Dae-yeon, Lee Kan-hie
* MPAA Rating: R (strong gruesome violence, strong sexuality, language and drug use)

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Gemma said...

Where DO you find these films? You definitely ARE the "film-meister!" Your writing and reviews are getting sharper and sharper. Good work, she said (sans prejudice!). :)

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I really think you missed the point with this one. Desperate people, yes, but in an ever-surprising story that is artfully filmed. Its greatest virtue is that you NEVER know what is going to happen from one scene to the next - unlike the vast majority of domestic crime and thriller films. I put a high premium on viewer astonishment and writer/director virtuosity.
Just wanted to register a dissenting point of view.

FilmFather said...

Appreciate your "dissenting point of view," anon -- that's the beauty of allowing comments on one's blog. I'm totally with you on the value of keeping the viewer engaged/amazed, and I also put high value on skilled filmmakers who are just as talented at storytelling (such a rarity these days). Maybe I was spoiled because I saw the brilliant Oldboy before watching Sympathy. Regardless, thanks for leaving your thoughts.


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