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Vengeance trilogy

December 2006 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance
cast: Song Kang-ho, Shin Ha-kyun, Bae Du-na, Lim Ji-eun, and Han Bo-nae

director: Park Chan-wook

121 minutes (18) 2002
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
If you are at all interested in the hoopla surrounding recent Asian cinema, you could do a lot worse than check out Park Chan-wook's outstanding 'Vengeance trilogy'. This loosely linked sequence of films (i.e. they share a common theme) began with Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (aka: Boksuneun naui geot), then progressed to the brilliant Oldboy, before finally coming to a majestic close with the incredible Lady Vengeance. These three films, in my honest opinion, represent one of the great achievements in modern genre filmmaking. But it is with Sympathy For Mr Vengeance that we concern ourselves here, and believe me this is a film worth considering.

Ryu's (Shin Ha-kyun) sister (played by Lim Ji-eun) is fatally ill; if she doesn't find a kidney donor in the very near future, she will die. After losing his job at the local iron-smelting factory, Ryu takes it upon himself to borrow some money and approach a bunch of organ-dealing gangsters to provide a suitable kidney. A deal is struck: Ryu gives them his savings and promises his own incompatible kidney in return for an organ for his sister.

The gangsters betray Ryu's trust, and he wakes up - naked and boasting a fresh surgical scar in his side - in an abandoned multi-storey car park. To make matters worse, he learns soon after from the hospital that a legal donor has been found and the doctors think that Ryu has secured the funds to pay for the operation. Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Yu-sun (Han Bo-nae) hatch a desperate plan to abduct the daughter of his ex-boss, Park (Song Kang-ho), and use the ransom to pay the hospital bills. After all, what could be easier than a spot of kidnapping? From here on in, things get complicated, and the entire plan goes tragically, and horrifically, wrong.

The film is utterly mesmerising, and beautifully shot; scenes are exquisitely framed and composed, and the performances are all top notch. There are some odd, symbolic moments (like the shot of a group of young men masturbating next door while Ryu's sister moans and writhes not in passion but in agony) that work well within the context of the film. Themes like modern urban alienation and its effects on Korean society are examined amid an admittedly complex and at times (deliberately?) contrived plot.

Despite a sombre tone, the script occasionally sparkles with incredibly dark humour. For example, Yu-sun's feeble justification for the kidnapping is that the wronged family will bond better afterwards, realising how much they love each other, and the ransom will be money that is released back into the local economy. Another scene that reflects this morbid humour is when a former employee of Park's attempts to commit hara-kiri with a craft knife. The results of his failure are both grimly funny and utterly horrific. Violence is dealt with in an unflinching manner, and no punches are pulled. Heads are pulped with a baseball bat, stabbings are unbelievably graphic, and one scene in a lake near the end will remain in your memory for a very long time to come.

After a somewhat quirky first hour, events suddenly take a tragic turn. The film becomes increasingly bleak, but the unpleasant subject matter is handled with such elegance and artistry that we can easily forgive the director's very occasional lapses of taste (a scene involving the autopsy of a child springs immediately to mind) and logic. Indeed, a lot of this is surprisingly moving, even tender, despite the extreme brutality on show.

To put it bluntly, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is an extraordinary film, and I can only compel you to give it a try and witness the breakout work of a truly original directorial talent. This film is like a sharp kick to the balls: you feel it intensely, and the effects linger for a long time afterwards.

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