Presumably it was the success of his wildly extravagant psycho-thriller “Oldboy” that has led to the release in this country of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s earlier (2002) entry in his so-called “revenge series”–actually a doubled tale of vengeance involving a botched kidnapping, in which both perpetrator and victim seek bloody redress against those who have done them wrong. It’s a stylish exercise with some agreeably weird touches, but as a whole it substitutes atmosphere for coherence or credibility.
The film centers first on Ryu (Shin Ha-gyun), a deaf mute with hair dyed a garish green who’s largely cut off from the world apart from his outrageous girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na), an anti-establishment activist with, she claims, ties to secret and powerful forces. Ryu works in a metal factory owned by Park Dong-Jin (Song Kang-ho) and is trying to save money to pay for an authorized, though expensive, kidney transplant for his beloved sister (Lim Ji-eun), though a match is hard to find. So he tries to go the black-market route, only to be hoodwinked by scammers who steal not only his money but one of his kidneys as well. And to make matters worse, he’s laid off. Yeong-mi then suggests that he kidnap his ex-boss’s young daughter and use the ransom to fund the operation (ironically, a suitable donor has now been found), and though he’s initially reluctant, the very public suicide of another dismissed employee persuades him to go ahead. The snatch apparently goes off without a hitch (although we’re not shown it), and for awhile it looks as though things might actually work out. But when his sister finds out what he’s up to, Ryu’s plan collapses in a double tragedy, including the accidental death of the kidnapped little girl. From this point Ryu remains one focus of attention–especially in terms of his desire to track down the gang that had robbed him–but now as much interest shifts to Park, a devastated father intent on dealing with those responsible for his daughter’s death. (A subplot involves a world-weary–and hardly incorruptible–cop whose child is also in need of an expensive operation.) Both men eventually take their vengeance in very brutal and gory fashion, but neither has the opportunity to enjoy his triumph for long.
All of this is handled by Park with a surrealistic touch, so that even the blander moments are given a heightened quality by the garish color scheme, striking compositions and frequently deliberate pacing (the widescreen cinematography of Kim Byung-il is essential to the often off-putting visual effect), as well as by the film’s odd tone, at once dirgelike and weirdly humorous. Some of the set-pieces are remarkable for their construction and execution, and as a whole the picture certainly builds an atmosphere of grim fatalism touched by irony. But it doesn’t really hang together. The coincidences that undergird the plot strain credulity, of course, but what ultimately sinks things is that Park italicizes them by his overripe treatment, and then tries to add a hint of profundity through occasional recourse to a radio talk-show host to whom Ryu writes about his problems (and who reads his letters on air). The director does, however, secure compelling performances from both Shin and Song, with the former capturing Ryu’s peculiar brand of stoicism quite effectively and the latter moving convincingly from comfortable complacency to simmering rage. On the other hand, Bae chews the scenery without restraint as Ryu’s girlfriend, who the final twist suggests isn’t quite as wacky as she seems.
There are sequences in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” that are likely to stick with you, to be sure, but, as in “Oldboy,” the failure to link them into a tightly-structured whole, along with a tendency to linger over the most bizarre violent imagery at the expense of urgency, leaves it seeming more a splashy stunt than a really satisfying genre piece.