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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

So simple to decipher

A year ago, Chan-wook Park's film Oldboy opened in the US to much acclaim, firmly establishing the new wave of Korean directors as the darlings of Asian cinema. But while, Oldboy arrived first in the minds of US audiences, it's actually the second chapter in Chan-wook's revenge trio, and a sequel of sorts, to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

The peculiar order of release, however, was no accident.

The difference between the two films is immediately apparent. Oldboy's opening sequence is as riveting as anything made this century, making it impossible for your attention to waver from the outset. In contrast, Sympathy meanders for the first 45 minutes, as we observe the deaf and mute Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin of the luminous Save the Green Planet!) go about his daily routine, from double-shifts at a metal factory to rendezvous with his quasi-revolutionary girlfriend. Screenwriting books say that moviegoers make up their mind about a film in the first five minutes; if that's the case, the audience will have decided to hate this movie ten times over before they have an inkling of Mr. Vengeance's identity.

Once the violence begins though, it never subsides. Desperate to find a kidney for his ailing sister, Ryu turns to the black market donor trade, which expectably goes terribly wrong. From here, the situation further deteriorates, not entirely surprising for a film whose sole purpose is to follow someone on the trail of vengeance.

The problem is that the acts of violence are asked to stand alone, as the story arc is predictable enough that we foresee each step of the journey far in advance. So in lieu of essentials like character depth and plot development, we get escalating acts of violence, minimally stylized in order to maximize their grisly nature.

Glimpses of Chan-wook's brilliance appear, but sadly they are short-circuited by his desire to saturate the film with violence. Ironically, the moments of greatest impact are those in which the graphic violence is absent. Perhaps this is best illustrated when "Mr. Vengeance" captures the final victim of his revenge. Instead of relief or elation, it is frustration that sits in. It's a rare, and welcome, use of subtlety amidst abundant blunt force.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5