Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Revenge served twice is the central theme of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan-Wook's follow-up to Oldboy. Well, not really. Oldboy was released in Korea before Sympathy, but it didn't have anybody like Quentin Tarantino shilling for it. Sympathy is similar in that it features interludes of brutal violence, but feels even more detached and unemotional than Oldboy. There are long stretches where little happens, and the film seems to drag in places. Although the structure is interesting, it feels like there is a lot of filler between the bursts of violence.

The moral ambiguity is the best aspect of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Park (Oldboy, If You Were Me), who co-wrote the story with Lee Jae-Sun, Lee Mu-Yeong (No Blood, No Tears, Bizarre Girl), and Lee Yong-Jong take their character and place them in extreme circumstances. Their actions may be criminal, but they are doing them for righteous reasons. So do the ends justify the means? Ryu (Shin Ha-Kyun, Surprise Party, A Man Who Went to Mars) is tending to his sister (Lim Ji-Eun, Vanishing Twin, Family), who desperately needs a kidney transplant. He quits his job to take care of her full-time. He cannot donate his own kidney, so he spends all of his savings with some sketchy people who agree to sell him an organ. Instead, they drug him, take his money, and one of his kidneys.

Ryu and his friend Cha (Bae Du-Na, Tube, Spring Bears Love) hatch a plan to kidnap his boss' daughter. They have no intention of killing her; they only want Park (Song Kang-Ho, Shiri, Memories of Murder). Things never go according to plan, and she dies accidentally. Another tragedy strikes close to home, and Ryu goes on a hunt to seek out the people who stole his kidney. Meanwhile, Park, distraught over his daughter's death, goes on his own hunt to find and kill Ryu. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance alternates between the two stories. Ryu (who is deaf and mute) and Park are extremely patient people, who will carefully stalk their prey in order to obtain the greatest advantage over them. Long stretches of Sympathy are silent, or filled with little action.

The viewer can glimpse into the minds of both Ryu as he stalks the organ sellers, and Park as he stalks Ryu. As the title implies, there are reasons to feel sympathy for both characters. So how does one reconcile Ryu? He did what he did to try to save his sister. Yet his actions were incredibly stupid and resulted in the death of a little girl. Even as Sympathy tries to juggle issues of right and wrong, it still feels a bit simplistic, and because of this, is ploddingly slow. Park's black sense of humor rears its head a few times, like when men huddle outside Ryu's room listening to his sister moaning, thinking she is having sex. In actuality, she is crying out in horrible pain, and Ryu, deaf, is completely oblivious to it. The contrast between the action and on-action was intended, but is too great. Judicious editing would make Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance a stronger film.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
2 hours, 9 minutes, Korean with English subtitles, Rated R for strong gruesome violence, strong sexuality, language, and drug use.

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