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Torture Chamber Drama: Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”

Torture Chamber Drama: Park Chan-wook's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make nearly enough movies. Thank heavens for Park Chan-wook. The first installment of Mr. Park’s “Revenge Trilogy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” opens this week following, in reverse order, the surprise U.S. art-house success of his second entry in the series, “Oldboy.” If “Oldboy,” a hyper-stylized ode to the sadomasochistic pleasures of bloody retribution and convoluted storytelling (not an unfitting description for “Kill Bill“), was something of a wake-up call to audiences entranced by the soul-stealing somnambulism of Hollywood’s latest, “Mr. Vengeance” proves there was something worth staying awake for.

Discussing Mr. Park’s work solely in terms of ‘QT’ would smack of Anglo-centrism — particularly to cinephiles hip to the fact that, for years now, the only “cutting edge” to speak of in global cinema has been situated squarely in Asia, perhaps most emblematically in the South Korean “New Wave.” Yet, especially in regard to Tarantino’s oeuvre and the current ‘transnational’ cultural marketplace, parsing out who-influenced-who seems as futile as mapping a Mobius strip. Instead, let it simply be said that while watching “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” one is gripped by the same giddy sense of the dynamic potential peculiar to cinema as found at work in Tarantino’s finest. For Park, every scene, composition, and transition is an opportunity to add a memorable reveal, sight gag, or stylistic flourish.

“Mr. Vengeance” surpasses “Oldboy” by putting these specifically cinematic touches to work in the service of a far richer commitment to character development and thematic complexity. Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf mute easily identified by his turquoise pate, lives with his ailing sister in need of a kidney transplant in a run-down tenement structure with paper-thin walls. Determined to find his sister a kidney despite a dearth of suitable donors, Ryu hides from her his termination from his factory job and pursues alternative avenues with the last of his savings. If this sounds fairly grim, well, it is — but Park infuses the story with an irresistible strain of existential humor.

One of the best examples of how Park’s visual panache informs his film’s ‘tramedic’ sensibility takes place in a public men’s room. Two latex-gloved hands reach upward into a frame composed of pure, white ceramic tile. The hands, soon revealed to belong to a cleaning woman, strain and scratch away a stubborn sticker above a bank of urinals. Having removed the offensive item, she steps away from the wall to reveal a bemused Ryu, standing at the urinal next to her. Within seconds of the cleaning woman’s exit, two tough-looking men enter and proceed to slap a new round of stickers above the urinals, landing one directly in Ryu’s line of sight: “Kidneys for Sale” with a telephone number.

Swindled by these underground kidney dealers, Ryu and his Communist revolutionary girlfriend, Yeong-mi, rationalize the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kidnapping and hatch a plan to hold the daughter of Ryu’s former boss for ransom. Suffice it to say, things go wrong, then go worse, and soon not only Ryu but also the target of his ransom attempt, Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), become engaged in a downward spiral of gory one-upsmanship. The mayhem culminates in a squirm-inducing sequence involving a pair of Achilles’ tendons worthy of the film’s Hellenic aspirations.

Like “Oldboy,” “Mr. Vengeance” features two complimentary revenge tales. The difference here is that we’re allowed a measure of empathy for both, a welcome complication to the film’s thematic interests. Whereas “Oldboy” plunges us straight into its avenger’s exploits while withholding the “why” of his tormentor’s motivations, “Mr. Vengeance” builds a steady causal foundation for its gruesome climax, enriched by the perspectives of a number of well-drawn supporting characters. Stealing the show among them is Yeong-mi, played by Bae Du-na with comedic brilliance and the best onscreen apathetic cigarette smoking since Anna Karina.

“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” should elevate Park’s international caché beyond that of Asian-shock specialist; the film is nothing less than a reminder of the invigorating potential of Cinema with a capital “C.” As for Mr. Tarantino, who has recently announced his intention to further pursue the medium of television, fans may realize, at the slight cost of enduring some subtitles and a trip to the local art-house: “Who needs him, anyway?”

[ Brad Westcott is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. ]

Sin Ha-kyun and Du-na Bae in a scene from Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” Image courtesy of Tartan Films USA.

Take 2
By Karen Wilson

One of the first details we learn about Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), the deaf factory worker-come-vengeance-deliverer in Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” is that he is a failed artist. Life’s circumstances have kept Ryu from what could’ve been, and thus his passions must be funneled first into love for his selfless, sickly sister (Lim Ji-Eun) and then later into revenge for her unjust death. Ryu’s vengeance becomes his masterpiece. In Park’s world, artistic expression and violent retribution are intimately bound together, compelling the viewer to conflate and confuse the two. What can seem merely decorative, like Ryu’s precise watercolors of a seemingly peaceful riverside, reveals a drowning girl painted in the corner. Imagery throughout Park’s films can be simultaneously beautiful and disturbingly violent, from the camera’s lingering over the death of that young girl in the lush creek to the brutal dispatch of organ peddlers in a rough warehouse, their limbs splayed and wounds oozing just so.

What seemed so Tarantino-cool in “Oldboy” (the visual allusions to video games or empathy with cold-blooded killers) was more baroque in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” As with “Oldboy” the plot twists in on itself — the vengeance seeker becomes the one who is avenged upon — but here the characters’ emotions and motivations are not as easy to decipher. On first glance, a trilogy of films about revenge seems like it could be too insignificant a subject for an artist of Park’s caliber, but as Ryu finds a way to beautifully express himself in violent death, Park uses vengeance to paint a whole universe of cinematic riches. This film — even more so than his heated-discussion-provoking films, the earlier “Joint Security Area” and the later, though released here first, “Oldboy” — both repels and compels simultaneously; it’s impossible not to gasp at Park’s cinematic craft even while in the same breath you’re groaning and cringing.

[ Karen Wilson is the editor of Cinecultist.com, an editor at Interview magazine, and a contributor to “Reverse Shot.” ]

Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun in a scene from Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” Image courtesy of Tartan Films USA.

Take 3
By Nick Pinkerton

What to say about “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”? It’s a genuinely scurrilous inferno of a movie that gorily goes tit-for-tat, matching atrocity to atrocity, playing out the old adage “an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind” for two hours teeming with carnage until all of the participants have all been messily crossed out. And it burns brightly for its stay on the screen, with a few hunks of political subtext — my knowledge of Korean current events is hardly sufficient to either call them out as red herrings or offer analysis — thrown on to help to make the thing crackle. Park’s movie is a clean and steady massacre, brazenly nihilistic, full of sicko invention, and with a few pieces of indelible nastiness that fairly jut out in the mind after the credits roll; most tenacious is an unemployed worker who accosts his ex-boss, then carves a weaving wound into his own belly with a box-cutter.

It’s the sort of movie that is easy to dredge up colorful language for — I suspect critics will fete it with a ball of poster-worthy blurb-age — but it’s more difficult for me to feel a hell of a lot of enthusiasm towards it, especially a couple of months after first having seen it. Is it roundly competent? Yes. At times borderline emotionally involving? Sure. Will I ever find the occasion to think about, much less watch it, again? Oh, God, no. Curious findings from South Korea, international cinema’s new Big Thing — the search for the “Next Hong Kong” is every bit as exhaustive as the rock press’ post-Nirvana quest for the “Next Seattle” in 1992. To pervert the metaphor, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is Soul Asylum. Accordingly, I might’ve dug this movie when I was 15.

[ Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor. ]

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