Film Review: Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (Vengeance Trilogy Part 1)

   In this writer's opinion, aside, perhaps, from the Golden Age of Hollywood there has been no industry throughout history which has managed to successfully create as prodigious and exciting a stream of movies as the Korean New Wave (from the late 90s to the mid 2000s). From the evocative work of Lee Chang-Dong through to the provactive nature of Kim Ki-Duk's filmography, Kwak Jae-Yong's revolution of the teen film, Im Kwom-Taek's continued late career resurgence, Kim Ji-Woon's genre bending and the endless invention of Bong Joon-ho, Korean movies were continually head and shoulders above the rest of the wold in terms of quality and sheer mind-boggling creativity.

   Of all the auteurs and film mavericks who caught the most global attention, however, there was one name which drew the most notice (and perhaps acclaim) - Park Chan-Wook. Whilst he had been a megastar in Korea since his regionally box office smashing JSA (which I wrote about here ), his breakthrough in the West came with his horrific and beautiful, equally visceral and cerebral, Vengeance Trilogy. Comprised of the thematically intertwined trio of films Sympathy For Mr Vegeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance, Park's movies' blend of stylised violence and Shakespearean narratives struck a chord with many viewers and each have become contemporary classics in their own right.

   The first installment of Park's trilogy is the exquisitely named  Sympathy For Mr Vengeance ; a title which manages to state so much about the film before the "play" button has even been pressed - the inevitable futility and tragedy of self defeating male rage caught in just four words.
   Starring Shin Ha-kyun (as mesmerising here as he would later be in Save The Green Planet and Welcome To Dongmakgol) as the wronged deaf-mute Ryu, Sympathy..., is based around a moral quandary: In order to save his sister's life, she battles to survive needing a kidney transplant, is it okay for the young man to resort to amorality to do so? Ryu's anarchist girlfriend suggests so and that he would be more than entitled to raise funds by holding to ransom the daughter of an executive from the company who wrongly fired him (Song Kang-ho, one of South Korea's most well known and talented actors).

   It soon becomes apparent that Ryu is not exactly a criminal mastermind and that others in his family may have very different moral standings to him - things soon go astray, innocent victims are made and all morality is lost by all those involved in the unfolding tragedy which escalates and escalates until is clear that there is no way that anyone will come out of the situation as a winner. It's a bleak fable and a tragedy in the true sense of the word - whereas redemption can be found in many English language films based on revenge (Straw Dogs, The Princess Bride, etc), salvation is nowhere to be seen in Park's pitch black tale.

   After Park's big budget success with JSA, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance proved to be a brave step back to a smaller scale and equally proved to be one which was rewarded with real triumph. Cinematographically astounding, and filmed with a real askew tone and sleight of movement, there is a real creeping slow horror to this movie which pervades it with sadness. Ryu seems to exist in a universe of exploitation of bad fortune but, when he attempts to right this karmic injustice, the world seems to tip further and further into cosmic in-balance with unrelenting chaos, misery and misfortune engulfing all with an apathetic lack of clemency.

   Due to the nihilistic saturation of tone, Mr Vengeance... did not quite grab the headlines which Old Boy did (with its crowd pleasing kinetic energy and iconic fight sequences), yet, viewed on its own, the feature is still an astounding one, raising, as it does, a variety of philosophical and ethical questions - is there such a thing as right and wrong in a Godless existence? - whilst not shying away from imbibing each sequence with real emotion, sympathy and even empathy. Filmed with incredible invention, the movie is a must see for all fans of Park, Korean cinema or, indeed, those looking for an alternative to the often thoughtless spate of revenge features which make for mainstream entertainment.

* This film was kindly sent to me by Zavvi for review purposes. Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is available as part of their exclusive Vengeance Trilogy Blu-Ray box set and includes hours of bonus material. I will be reviewing the next two installments on this blog in the coming days.

1 comment

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