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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Modern Masterpieces #1: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2003)

Chan-Wook Park is one of the great directors working in film today, that’s not hyperbole or fan-boy hype, it’s a fact. With only a handful of films, he’s managed to launch a career that has raised the global profile of not just his work, but his actors and the South Korean industry as a whole. He’s one of three director’s working in South Korea today that continues to generate international buzz in film magazines and websites; the other two being Bong-Joon Ho (The Host) and Ji-Woon Kim (Bittersweet Life). I first became aware of Park in 2002 with JSA: Joint Security Area, I was still relatively new to Korean film and JSA was a great example of what the country was capable of producing, but then I watched Park’s follow-up, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance early in 2003 and it truly changed the way I viewed movies.

The story is simple, or so it seems. Ryu (Shin Kyun-ha), a deaf mute is knocked-off by black market organ dealers when he attempts to buy a new kidney for his terminally ill sister. Needing cash quick in order to pay for a legitimate transplant, he devises a plan with his anarchist girlfriend (Bae Doo-na) to kidnap his ex-employers (Song Kang-ho) daughter and hold her for ransom. Naturally, the plan doesn’t go as planned. To divulge more would be criminal to those who have not seen the film, needless to say it gets bloody.

With the financial success of JSA, Park was given creative freedom for his next project, and it shows. JSA was a big production, a blockbuster movie that broke box-office records; many were expecting another such production with Mr. Vengeance. How wrong they were. Mr. Vengeance is so far removed from JSA that it’s remarkable they came from the same person; JSA was a visually striking movie, but in a glossy, MTV fashion that he would later take to his extreme with 2004’s Oldboy. Mr. Vengeance couldn’t have been more different, stripped down to film minimum; Park relies only on the story and actors to wow over his audience: there’s no music, no elaborate set-pieces and no clever twists here, only an oncoming car crash of a narrative that you can’t divert your stare from.

With this bold stylistic decision also comes alienation. The films purposeful cold metallic palette echoes the characters mental anguish which leads to the numerous bloody encounters within the film, but to the casual viewer it may be too much of an extreme; the film drips negativity and is filmed with a documentary-like realism that will disturb and punish more than thrill and excite. This came at a time when South Korean cinema was very much style over substance for the most part, with movies like Shiri and Tell Me Something wowing audiences with their looks rather than their story. This stripped-down, nihilist approach can also be responsible for the films poor performance at the box-office in its home country.

More akin with fellow Korean enfant terrible, Kim Ki-duk’s filmography than anything else Chan has produced, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance remains one of South Korea’s greatest achievements. It may not have won as many awards as his later films or made as much bank, but in twenty years time this is the film that most will be looking back at and re-visiting to understand Park the film-maker. Here is where his dark heart emerged; this is his first cruel ode to cinema and remains arguably his finest achievement to date. A film that broke all the rules, not just onscreen but off, it’s the product of a man who truly defied, and smashed, every expectation laid upon him to produce something spectacular. Love it or hate it, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance will leave a scar upon you that will never be removed.

You can buy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on Blu-ray of DVD now.