Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

The Verdict: Dark, unflinching, and relentless thriller from the man who brought us 'Oldboy'. This nightmarish spiral of revenge will leave you meek and sobbing in the foetal position, begging for the 'Shrek' DVD to be put on before you go to bed.

Craziness: Bloody, revenge-fuelled violence, and lots of it. Let's see, there's suicide, drowning, electrical torture, arterial spray, baseball bats, organ theft and self-mutilation... (So it's not a kid's movie then - Ed)

The Rating: 6/10

One of Chan-Wook Park's more recent movies somewhat unfairly hit the headlines over the last few months in the wake of a spree killing in the United States, where the perpetrator was pictured imitating certain images from the film. For those of you yet to see 'Oldboy', I recommend two things: first, you should prepare yourself mentally for what will be a psychologically jarring couple of hours. Then, give it a watch when you think you're ready. You won't be ready though, because 'Oldboy' is a monster, albeit a brilliant one.

There is a similar theme of revenge running through the predecessor to 'Oldboy', and indeed, the follow-up, named 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance'. In this, monikered his 'revenge trilogy', Park takes an unflinching look at the basic human impulse for revenge and the effects of extreme emotional trauma and wrong-doing on otherwise normal people.

There are two main plot threads in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The first follows deaf-mute Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin), who is caring for his ill sister in their crummy one-bedroomed apartment. She is in urgent need of a kidney transplant and requires constant care. An chain of events leads Ryu to the desperate situation where he considers more unconventional means of acquiring thre required kidney for his sister. There's a very foreboding moment where Ryu is using a public toilet, and his eye is drawn to a poster reading simply: 'organs for sale'. You just get the feeling that things aren't going to go well for him after that, and they certainly don't.

After that episode, Ryu ends up being offered a genuine hospital transplant, but has no money to pay for it. His girlfriend Yeong-Mi (Du Na-Bae) persuades him to consider kidnapping his former boss's six-year-old daughter, considering he got laid off from his factory job recently. She is convinced they can pull off the kidnapping in a good way. Simply take the kid, demand the required 26 million won (that's roughly €20,000 - Ed), and return the kid, unharmed, without involvement from the cops.

If only things were that simple. When an accident results in the young girl's death, a chain of events is set in motion that sends the two men, Ryu and his former boss, Mr. Park (Kang-Ho Song) on a spiralling spree of revenge that eventually culminates in their meeting, not before much blood has been spilt along the way.

Chan-Wook Park carefully constructs this chain of events to convince the audience that these characters motives for revenge are pure. In both cases the protagonists are not bad guys, not even particularly hard men. This is not Steven Seagal the firefighter, taking on the crime organisation to avenge the death of his wife and kid, but bizarrely it is in the same ball park. The difference is in the realism, both in the construction of the protagonists' relative motives for revenge, and also in the graphically illustrated situations that ensue. Park does not offer his characters or the audience the luxury of a dry witty one-liner when his 'heroes' dispatch their nemeses. Instead, they are plunged deeper into the darkness that has pushed them to that point in the first place, and the audience is pulled along with them.

Let me follow Chan-Wook Park's example and make it explicit: 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengenace' is not for the faint-hearted. It is loaded with nightmarish images, dark events, and an ending that will not send you home with a smile on your face. If you thought 'Se7en' was dark, then you may rethink your mental categories after watching this one. However, the level of intelligence in the construction of those two movies is congruent.

The most extreme movie I have ever seen to this point is a certain 'Irréversible'. That movie is one I would not even think of recommending, simply because it takes the audience to the darkest places where movies really have no right to. With the narrative unfolding in reverse, the end at the beginning and vice versa, the violence in that movie begins in the first ten minutes with the most graphic murder sequence I have ever seen on celluloid. Vincent Cassel's character's motives for the killing are revealed as the movie unfolds in reverse, but even at the end (beginning) I was left feeling disgusted with the film, and wholly unrewarded for putting myself through the experience. There was a little of the same feeling with 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance', but at least I got the impression that the two main characters were somewhat justified in their relative quests for revenge. In both cases, the titles suit the subject material perfectly, and in both cases, the violence is very very graphic.

Of note is one special effect which I have never seen done quite so well elsewhere. When one of the genuine 'bad men' realises he has been stabbed in an artery, there is a dramatic close up of the wound, with the artery shown pulsing behind the wound, the knife still lodged. His compatriot warns him "it's in an artery, don't pull it out..." You can guess the rest...

And yes, folks, this is an indication of what's on offer with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and definitely not one for a quiet night in with the wife, or the kids, or granny and grandad (unless you want to traumatise your loved ones.) However, if dark cinema is your cup of tea, and you like your movies intelligent, well-crafted, and a little bit on the bloody and violent side, then this one may be for you. I can honestly say it is adrenaline-fueled in the same manner as 'Oldboy', if not at the same level of quality.

So this is 'Asia Extreme'. Bloody hell, I'm not sure if I'm going to survive this Asian Season! Still have Takashi Miike's movies to get through, and 'Ichi the Killer' is in there... might have to counteract this stuff with a Disney season afterwards or something, just to balance things out a little! (Wimp - Ed)

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