A brutally violent exercise in revenge and the inhumanity that man visits upon man in the name of personal justice, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is an emotionally painful story of love and the limits to which one will go to both preserve and avenge it. Asking no friends and taking no prisoners, this visual feast of debauchery is emotionally complex in subtext. The surface action is lyrically choreographed, finding beauty in destruction and poetry in violence even as its subversive, emotionally intensive themes of obligation and personal culpability inspire recognition. Not a fun movie, this is serious cinema wearing the skin of genre, interweaving self introspective questions of responsibility and amorality, dedication and doom, amidst exciting displays of bloodshed. A ballet of brutality, this feature doesn't entertain so much as provoke with its nihilistic outlook. This mood coats both its characters and scenery in shades of physical and emotional bleakness, disturbing not only our expectations and personal beliefs but, in addition, the banal dictates of cinema.

In this modern tragedy where the characters are both victims and victimizers, no one is completely a villain or hero in the traditional meaning of the word. The plot of this scathing denouncement of capitalism and family features Ryu, a deaf young man whose love for an ill sister in desperate need of a kidney prompts him to turn to crime. Finding out that his blood type doesn't match hers, Ryu depends on the illegal organ market for a replacement kidney only to be cheated out of both the kidney and his money. When a legitimate donor is found -- a cruel irony in a story rife with such tiny agonies -- Ryu, unable to pay for the operation, is convinced by his anarchist, anti-capitalist girlfriend to kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman (Ryu's former boss, Dong-jin) for ransom. Mirroring life, nothing works out in his favor, and what should have been a routine scheme ends in an unexpected tragedy that sparks a cycle of revenge.

Boldly refusing to populate his film with one dimensional caricatures or overly simplistic moral preaching, director Park Chanwook depicts each character in all their funeral finery, seeing within their confused, fragmented minds a spinning revolving wheel of tenderness, hatred, rage, and self-absorption. Similarly, the plot refuses to allow either its characters or audience to survive unscathed. There is real unavoidable physical and emotional pain in lives gone wrong, and everyone to some extent suffers. Neither are there any false rays of hope. Exchanging the tacked-on 'feel good' mentality of Hollywood for the commendable moroseness of its bitter convictions, Mr. Vengeance is more concerned with the internal demands of storytelling than with appealing to a certain faction of the weak minded (or weak stomached).

While some would claim the film lacks any moral center or frame of reference, this is in fact its principle aesthetic and intellectual merit, as the director needs no moral crutch. Because there is no coddling, no convenient moral sermon to direct our anger or concern, we are encouraged instead to feel varying degrees of empathy and despair for the entire cast, our attitudes changing no less than the character's motivations themselves. This is considered decidedly dangerous filmmaking for the moral majority, those censors of public taste who take it upon themselves to decide what we should be exposed to (possessing such strong moral fibre that they themselves aren't disturbed by it of course). Ryu and Dong-jin are equally despicable and sympathetic, the former committing a crime for a valid if not justifiable reason, the later a tool of the heartless machinery of Capitalism. Precisely because by story's end no one's life escapes unharmed, the story remains both believable and philosophically refreshing, opting to take the higher road and seek truth in its fictional context rather than the simplistic reassurance so many viewers appear to crave. The world isn't a nice, safe place, we're told, and this message is reaffirmed by a plot where vengeance is indeed had, but no one at all is content as a result.

As much a scathing social criticism of big business, politics, and revolution as it is a gritty and realistic tragedy of murder and the basic emptiness of life, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is also a vicious yet elegant allegory of the base savagery in all men regardless of creed, social status or intentions. Stripping down our pretence of civilization and moral appearances, Park Chanwook proves himself a thinker as well as an artist, revealing that despite such surface differences as economics and power, we're all equal in our desire to get vengeance -- a profoundly disturbing yet undeniable true premise that lends this cinematic attack an inescapable but resonance of unease!

Tartan Asia Extreme continues to impress, rescuing bold and intelligent films from obscurity, treating them with both technological proficiency and respect. In Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance they deliver a clean, sharp transfer in anamorphic widescreen. Audio is likewise commendable, weighing in with DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks. Extras include a preview of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and, more pertinent, a subtitled commentary with Chan-wook Park and Korean director Ryu Seung-wang that encourages further appreciation of the director's moral system, approach to film craft, and storytelling in general. These are followed by the film's original trailer, photo gallery, and more!

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Tartan Asia Extreme
Region 1 NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review