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SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Boksuneun naui geot) (director/writer: Park Chan-wook; screenwriters: Lee Moo Young/Lee Jong Yong /Park Ridame; cinematographer: Kim Byung Il; editor: Kim Sang Beom; music: Pae Hyun Jin; cast: Shin Ha Kyun (Ryu), Song Kang Ho (Park Dong Jin), Bae Doona (Yeong Mi Cha), Lim Ji Eun (older sister), Dae-yeon Lee (Choe); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Lee Jae Soon; Tartan Films; 2002-South Korea-in Korean with English subtitles)
“Slightly more enjoyable than getting a kidney transplant.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very violent crime thriller, certainly not one for the faint-hearted, directed and co-written by the talented but self-indulgent Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. It was the first leg of his trilogy that included “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance.” It’s a stylish ‘kidnap gone wrong’ thriller that’s filled with cynicism, tension and gore. But it sorely lacks depth, a clear point of view and coherence; it plays instead as a weird baroque meditation on excessive and gratuitous violence over having a “guilty conscience.” For those willing to sit through such a dark emotional experience, there’s not much to take away from the experience other than the aesthetics of the violence on the screen. I can’t think of one thing pleasant about it, even if it’s a given that Park can be a dazzling filmmaker.

The oddball tale revolves around two men in different situations whose amoral actions over them being wronged causes an ongoing bloodbath. The first is the deaf and dumb factory worker Ryu (Shin Ha Kyun), who has dyed green hair and is with anarchist girlfriend agitator Bae Doona (Yeong Mi Cha). The mute lad is devoted to his older critically ill sister (Lim Ji Eun) and in a desperate move tries on the black market to get her a life-saving transplant. When that fails because they betray him by stealing both his money and kidney (which makes him a sympathetic character), Ryu learns he has a chance to get one in less than a week legitimately but must pay a king’s ransom to get it and doesn’t have the money. The second protagonist is Song Kang Ho Park (Park Dong Jin), the president of a sweatshop-style electronics factory where both brother and sister worked and where his sister’s health was ruined and he was fired.

At the urging of Bae, Ryu kidnaps the factory owner’s young daughter. She says it will be fun for the kid to get away from her folks, and they hold her for a large ransom of ten million won. But she accidentally drowns while in their custody. This leads to a cycle of violence including torture scenes and lots of cruelty, as the father seeks revenge and goes on a chilling bloodletting rampage.

The movie was only slightly more enjoyable than getting a kidney transplant; it brings up issues over a class struggle and other ones having political overtones (unemployed masses and the economic downfall), but everything begins and ends in its violence as the film never rises above that ignoble aim and in the end seems only a shallow exercise in showoff filmmaking.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”