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Original Title:
Boksuneun naui geot

South Korea 2002

Drama, Thriller

Park Chan-wook

Shin Ha-kyun
Song Kang-ho
Bae Du-na
Lim Ji-Eun
Han Bo-bae
Kim Se-dong

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Story: Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is deaf-mute and gave up on his art studies in order to have the time to care for his ill sister (Lim Ji-Eun). He has a job at a steel factory and tries to get the money necessary for his sister to get a new kidney. However, the doctor tells him that Ryu is not a suitable donor, because he has a different blood group. When a donor for his sister might be found it could already be too late for her. That's why Ryu gets involved with the doings of a dubious gang of criminals, who offer him to give him a suitable kidney in exchange for his own and money. Ryu agrees, but he gets cheated.
Eventually, Ryu is told by the doctor that against expectations they in fact already found a suitable donor. However, now Ryu doesn't have the money, anymore...
Since Ryu did also loose his job he comes up with a plan together with his left-liberal girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na). They want to abduct the daughter of his former employer Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho). They also manage to do so, but after that everything goes awfully wrong. And Dong-jin only wants to take vengeance...

Review: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is the first part of Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance"-trilogy. Since I saw the "second" part "Oldboy" first, I was a little bit disappointed by Park's kick-off work. Besides the vengeance-theme there is nothing the two movies have in common. And so "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" does actually also go a dark, cold and and tense road, however, it doesn't manage to weave a bond to the audience. Everything seems so distant and too cold. The sympathy for the protagonists is at best minimal. Furthermore, the movie has to struggle with a slow pacing. Concerning the style Park once again proves that he knows his stuff. Unfortunately, the last fine-tuning is missing, which should make his later works so special.
The film more seems to be made rather for an art-house audience, than for common people.

The way of storytelling is quite original, but at first it is a bit confusing. For a lot of viewers it will take a while until you notice that Ryu's sister and his girlfriend are two different persons. This is mainly because of the unlucky (but intentional?) cuts in the movie.
Just as sudden as everything happens in this movie, the actual kidnapping out of the blue is also a past event. These little story jumps are not a rarity and although subsequently logical, resp the story still makes sense afterwards, they are not easy for the viewer to get along with. Moreover the viewer always has some distance to the events on screen. This is because the motives and actions of the different characters aren't always reasonable and their emotions are too much pushed into the background. The movie is more of the shocking sort which with its coldness creates a feeling of emptiness in the viewer's heart.

For Ryu everything goes wrong and while at the beginning we clearly sympathize with him, the perspective of storytelling makes a turn, focusing more on Dong-jin. Although now it's him we sympathize with, we can't see Ryu as the "bad" nemesis. That's the brilliant thing about "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance": There is no black-white drawing. Even though the person's methods and actions may be unpleasent at times, we basically can understand why they have to do what they do. Every one of them seems to have his reasons and no one can really be bitter about it, even if the methods aren't morally justifiable. Yet, this feeling of sympathy can be lost quite fast, for example when Dong-jin calmly keeps on eating while torturing Yeong-mi with electroshocks. Concerning violence the movie is flintlike, disturbing, bloody and knows no taboos. In his very own way, the film has one of the most brutal scenes ever.

Despite all the violence "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is a drama in the first place. Shin Ha-kyun does give a fine performance as deaf-mute and sometimes a little bit simpleminded Ryu. Song Kang-ho as Dong-jin is convincing, too, as it is the case with the rest of the cast, who are all giving more then your average performance. Sadly, all the characters are lacking something. They seem to be without life, although this might sound strange at first. Their emotions drown in a whirlpool of revenge.
Nevertheless, the movie has some unforgettable and intensive scenes, e.g. when a disguised Ryu takes the same elevator as the police and suddenly the sheet that covered the body of a just found victim falls down revealing the face of a friend of Ryu. To learn of the death of a near friend under these circumstances surely isn't easy, but again we don't see anything of Ryu's emotions, as he can't risk revealing them, of course...

Besides some nice camera angles Park again lets shine through his typical style which enriches his movies so much. Apart from some text massages that every now and then show us what deaf-mute Ryu tries to tell, which gives the movies something of a silent film, we sometimes also hear what the protagonist hears - which is nothing. Generally, there are only a few words spoken in the movie and the very scantily use of music even increases the distance one has towards the events. At the same time this undoubtedly also has its appeal to the audience and we plunge into this world, in which it seems that everything that can go wrong, eventually goes wrong.
If you expect a Happy End then you are in the wrong movie, naturally. It's more that the drama with its characters, their sometimes questionable motives and the at times flagrant violence, is more of a provoking piece of art about loss, sorrow and vengeance. With use of cold pictures the director shows that there is no line between good and evil and presents us a fascinating world. Sadly, the movie has some lengthy scenes and provides some sidestorys, as the one with the little boy, that apparently serves no purpose at all for the film, creating only more confusion.

After a second viewing, when you already know what to expect, I definitely liked the movie a lot better. With a lot of good will and because of the fact that "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" has some scenes that will whir in your head even days after viewing, which is something uncommen nowadays, the movie gets the better rating of the two I had to decide of.
If you can bring along some patience and don't expect an actual prequel to "Oldboy" you will have some fun with this little artwork. Interestingly enough, for some reason, there are even some voices, that claim "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" to be superior to its sequel...

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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