Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Doona, Song Kang-ho, Lim Ji-Eun
Written by: Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Yong-jong, Park Chan-wook
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
MPAA Rating: R for strong gruesome violence, strong sexuality, language and drug use
Language: In Korean/Korean Sign Language with English subtitles
Running Time: 129
Date: 03/29/2002

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bittersweet 'Sympathy'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It has only been a few years since South Korean films have begun spreading across the United States, and the dozen or so samples we've seen have tended toward the extreme.

On one side, we have the patient, painterly artworks like Im Kwon-taek's films Chunhyang (2001) and Chihwaseon (2003) or Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003) and on the other, we have intense envelope-pushing explosions like Lies (2000), Nowhere to Hide (2001), Save the Green Planet! (2003) and -- the granddaddy of them all -- this year's festival hit Oldboy.

Made in Korea in 2003, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy told the epic story of a man imprisoned for 18 years for no particular reason, who then attempts to unravel the mystery upon his release/escape. With its high-concept idea, a superb performance by lead actor Choi Min-sik, and a few astonishing fight scenes, the film pleased Quentin Tarantino during his 2004 Cannes Film festival jury duties, as well as all his legion of fans.

Based on the success of Oldboy, Tartan Films has chosen to dig up and release one of Park's earlier films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), which is even more brutal than Oldboy, but sadly less focused and with less intrigue.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tells the story of a recently laid-off, deaf factory worker, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), who wishes to save his sister's life by obtaining a kidney for her. He goes to the black market and trades his own kidney plus his life savings, but still needs money to pay the legitimate hospital bill. So Ryu and his best friend, a cute extreme left-wing activist (Bae Doona), cook up a scheme to kidnap the four year-old daughter of a ruthless businessman (Song Kang-ho). As expected in a Korean action flick, everything goes wrong in the bloodiest, goriest way imaginable.

As proven by Oldboy, Park has at his disposal a reservoir of new cinematic ideas when it comes to violence and sex. In one of the movie's tamer scenes, a man torments a woman. He has her tied up and an electric shock device clamped to her ears. At one point, the take-out food she previously ordered arrives. The tormenter takes a break to eat the food, but stops when a trickle of his victim's urine makes its way across the floor and under the Styrofoam box.

While these individual set pieces hit hard enough to make viewers see stars, the film's overall pace flows in uneven fits and starts. Park tries to occasionally give the audience a break with quiet moments and humor, but the breaks seem to come at the wrong time or last too long. Moreover, the film drags on uncomfortably past the two-hour mark. Thus, the extreme gore leaves us feeling drained and hopeless rather than energized.

Park's contribution to Korean cinema clearly tends toward the "extreme" category, and that's fine, but shocking set pieces are not enough. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance wanders too close, too often, to the middle of the road.

Palisades Tartan released a great Blu-ray box set of Park's "Vengeance" trilogy, and now they have released a single-disc edition of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the "Ultimate Revenge" edition. Extras include a "making-of" featurette, interviews, storyboards, trailers, photos, Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook, and a director commentary track (spoken in Korean with English subtitles). The feature itself has optional subtitles; picture quality is clear, and though the colors don't exactly pop, this may be the film's original intention.

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