Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot) [DVD]
Director : Park Chan-wook
Screenplay : Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Yong-jong, Park Chan-wook
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Song Kang-ho (Park Dong-jin), Shin Ha-kyun (Ryu), Bae Du-na (Cha Yeong-mi), Lim Ji-Eun (Ryu's Sister), Han Bo-bae (Yu-sun), Kim Se-dong (Chief of Staff), Lee Dae-yeon (Choe)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot), the first in what has become a thematically linked trilogy of films by South Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a viciously enthralling experience that elicits deep sympathy for its struggling characters only to inflict on them a cruel hand of circular fate that ensures no winners. Park's vision of life is simultaneously humanistic and methodically brutal, and somewhere in the middle lies his unique genius. Few filmmakers outside of Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese have managed to wring so much genuine pathos out of operatic bloodshed.
The story begins in grand sentimental terms, giving us Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a fair-faced deaf-mute with green hair whose beloved older sister (Lim Ji-Eun) is dying and needs a kidney transplant. Ryu would give her one of his own, but he has the wrong blood type. Given an indeterminate waiting time for a suitable donor, he makes the fatal decision to trade one of his own kidneys plus all his savings for a suitable donor kidney on the black market. Instead of saving his sister, he wakes up with a missing kidney and his life savings stolen from him. Desperate, he agrees to a plan concocted by his activist girlfriend (Bae Du-na) to kidnap the five-year-old daughter of Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), a wealthy industrialist. As these things tend to go, the kidnapping does not go as planned, which sets off an escalating chain of vengeance that can lead nowhere except a series of brutal deaths, some more deserved than others.
What makes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance so intriguing is the way Park plays with his characters and our sympathies for them. Ryu, for example, seems calculated from every angle to be a sympathetic protagonist. Not only is our empathy for him increased by his deafness and inability to speak, but he is portrayed as a genuinely caring individual, the rare sort who will truly risk his own life to save someone he loves.
Yet, at the same time, he is capable of dangerous criminal activity in the form of kidnapping a child. It is not without irony that the fatal turn of events in which the kidnapping goes bad takes place when his back is turned while caring for a loved one; it's a cruel twist of fate, albeit one that has seeds in his deliberate actions. Further down the narrative road, Ryu demonstrates a capacity for brutal violence, the kind that causes one character to describe him as a "psycho." Yet, because of what he's been through, we have a tendency to forgive his violence as justified, particularly within the cinematic framework, which has proved exceptionally attuned since its origins at justifying violent actions by the protagonist.
At the same time, Park Dong-jin is just as complex and sometimes contradictory. Initially portrayed as a little more than a wealthy capitalist, the kind who fires workers like Ryu without batting an eye (the film is particularly adept at placing its story within the framework of a crumbling Korean economy sharply stratified by class divides), he begins to grow in our sympathies once tragedy is visited on him. But, like Ryu, he also proves to be capable of inflicting serious harm and suffering on others in the name of his own righteous vengeance. And, because his revenge is aimed squarely at Ryu, a sympathetic character, its relation to true justice becomes all the more tenuous.
Park Chan-Wook is an accomplished visual director, which almost works against him because it makes his films seem too slick and polished--the work of an gifted sadist. Yet, in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, his aesthetic choices, although sometimes odd, consistently strengthen his character development and thematic interests. Granted, Park's aesthetics sometimes tend to slide into meaningless flourishes and one-note jokiness; he is particularly fond of revealing gags or background humor, such as the shot in which a female janitor is scraping stickers off a bathroom wall and then steps back to reveal Ryu standing at the urinal next to her. One could argue that such humor is a needed antidote in Park's stories--a small respite from the violent intensity.
In a sense, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the best kind of exploitation movie: one that takes the shock value inherit to the genre and drives it toward penetrating questions that usually lie fallow in the subtext, if at all. Park has been accused of being just another brutal, postmodern ironist wielding fancy camera tricks and a ruthless bloodlust, but I think such a reading of his work fails to appreciate his thematic accomplishments. He's freely and willfully working in a disreputable genre (although the critics' frequent comparisons of Sympathy to Jacobean revenge tragedies illustrates again what a close affinity exploitation has to much classic literature and theater), one that focuses primarily on shock tactics and convoluted narrative ploys, but he makes his films work because he invests them with meaning and sentiment. He takes the time to develop his characters and ensure the vividness of their interactions and relationships before allowing the brutality to take over.
|Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance DVD|
|Release Date||November 22, 2005|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer of Sympathy for Mr. Vegeance is uniformly excellent. The picture is sharp and clear, without any evidence of dirt or compression artifacts. Blacks are deep and rich, with excellent shadow detail, and Park Chan-wook's florid color scheme (predominated by hues of green) is exceptionally bold and well-saturated.|
|Early in his audio commentary, Park Chan-wook mentions that he tried to make the most of surround sound when mixing the soundtrack for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and it shows. Both the DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are excellent, with great spaciousness and immersive surround effects. The surround speakers are used quite consistently, and the soundtrack as a whole is detailed and heavily layered (some of the scene's grosser moments, such as a pair of autopsies, are detailed entirely with sound).|
|The main supplement on this disc is a screen-specific audio commentary by Park Chan-wook, which is essentially a conversation about the film with fellow South Korean director Ryu Seung-wan, who has a bit role in the film (the commentary is in Korean, so you have to read it in subtitles). More than anything, the commentary shows how attuned to detail Park Chan-wook is and how nothing escapes his attention. The only other supplements are two-and-a-half minutes of clips from Park's upcoming film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, a photo gallery of 25 production stills and the behind-the-scenes pics, and the film's 2005 U.S. re-release trailer.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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