There are actually two men seeking revenge in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” though I guess “Sympathy for Messrs. Vengeance” would have been a strange title. Ah — or perhaps we are meant to sympathize with one vengeance-seeker and not the other. So many mysteries, and we haven’t even gotten to the actual movie yet!
Chan-wook Park’s 2002 film is the first in his Revenge Trilogy, followed by “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance,” and while “Oldboy” is a better and more fully realized film, you can see Park’s sensibilities emerging in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”
He introduces a deaf and mute young man named Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) whose sister (Ji-Eun Lim) is desperately in need of a kidney transplant. An effort to obtain one on the black market is botched, leading Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha (Du-na Bae) to hatch a truly hare-brained scheme: kidnap a businessman’s daughter and use the ransom money to buy an organ.
The businessman, Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song), becomes the focus of the film after the kidnapping, too, is mishandled. He wants revenge against the man who kidnapped his daughter, while the kidnapper wants revenge against the black-market organ dealers. Both men are surprisingly adept at getting what they want, using methods that are somewhere between Tarantino and Abu Ghraib. But vengeance, as the film reminds us in what must amount to its “point” or “message,” only inspires more vengeance.
Park (who co-wrote the film with Jae-sun Lee, Mu-yeong Lee and Yong-jong Lee) uses a placid, calm visual style to belie the film’s frequent violence. The camera rarely moves, and he favors long, unbroken takes, though often from a canted angle or a peculiar vantage point, making the whole thing feel slightly surreal and dreamlike.
Alfred Hitchcock said he liked to shoot his murders like loves scenes and his love scenes like murders. Park shoots his loves scenes like murders, and his murders like murders, and everything else like murders. In “Oldboy,” he shoots a dinner-eating scene like a murder. Yet he does it all so casually, with enviable coolness and visual flair.
He also does it, at least in this film, without much purpose, except insofar as well-filmed violence is its own reward. He clearly has talent, and he’s clearly very confident in his talent (though not to the point of being a showoff, thank goodness). But our sympathy for these characters is mostly generic. We feel bad for their respective losses, but we aren’t inside their heads enough, identifying with them as people, to condone their choices. It’s more of a freak show — although freak shows can be fun, too.
B (2 hrs., 1 min.; Korean with subtitles; )