Starring Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Du-na Bae
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Released by Tartan Films
Here at Dread Central there has been an ongoing behind-the-scenes debate as to what we classify as horror. Many purists argue that the content has to deal with the supernatural, the unknown, or the unexplained in order to fit the bill. Others think that pure horror is simply all about frightening the audience.
But what is pure horror? In this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s all about the dark side of human nature. After all, how can the unknown threaten if it doesn’t set something off within us? How can you get a thrill by watching a character that doesn’t react to terror? And how come even the most outlandish concepts seem to be somewhat indicative of us as a culture? Horror is about cause and effect, and it can manifest from anywhere – from the fantastic realm of the supernatural to the real dark recesses of the human mind. Furthermore, it can be communicated through any number of ways: suspense, fear, drama, action, comedy, etc, etc. Variety is what makes the genre interesting.
My friends, I am here to tell you that Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is most definitely a horror film, more so than your average M. Night Shyamalan flick or Friday the 13th sequel. This is cinema at its boldest and while many would argue that it’s strictly “drama” material, Mr. Vengeance is so intense, so macabre, and so unapologetic, it’s doubtful that many viewers outside the horror circle could handle it – which is why it comes to us courtesy of Tartan’s Asia Extreme label.
The first film in Chan wook Park’s “revenge trilogy” (followed by Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), Mr. Vengeance weaves a complex tale of three individuals and their descent into madness. Deaf-mute Ryu has a dying sister in need of a kidney transplant and can’t afford the operation due to his recent job termination. After being swindled by black market organ dealers, he enlists the aid of his anarchist girlfriend, Cha, who cooks up a plot to kidnap the daughter of his wealthy old boss, Dong-jin. But several tragic events are set into motion and Ryu, Cha, and Dong-jin soon find themselves entangled in a brutal revenge triangle from which there is no escape.
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance has a single goal… to hurt you. And it does. This is a horror film in the same vein as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – that is to say, it’s a character study about the loss of humanity. Through its unrelenting nature, it plunges head first into real life horror and explores the darkest areas of the soul. Yet we see these demons unleashed, not from your typical psychopath, but from everyday people. After all, everyone has their breaking point.
If you’ve ever seen a Chan wook Park film, you know what to expect: A fury of violence, emotion, and cinematic poetry. He’s a filmmaker that demands a lot from his audience. Park depicts events “as is” and expects you to think about what you’re seeing. Keeping true to its title, the film’s characters are indeed sympathetic, but you never side with or against them. Are they good or bad? Are they completely at fault or are they simply victims of fate? As in life, there are no easy answers. Nothing is black-and-white here. Only one thing is certain: You feel for all three individuals, and you have no choice but to sit and watch as they’re all consumed by revenge. Park wisely defines his characters through actions instead of words and the actors involved are all brilliant; they can communicate more through a single look than a ten minute monologue.
Stylistically, Mr. Vengeance is breath-taking. Park’s visuals are beautiful, which adds an interesting contrast to the graphic violence, and the screeching ambient score does a wonderful job of capturing the sense of the characters’ unfolding pain and madness.
Tartan Films gives Mr. Vengeance a serviceable treatment on DVD. The 5.1 audio mix does a great job with the film’s eerie sound design and, despite a few artifacts, the picture is equally impressive. The only noteworthy extra is a subtitled commentary track from Chan-wook Park, which makes this edition a must have. We also get the standard-issue trailer and photo gallery, and a “First Look at Lady Vengeance,” which is just a random out-of-context scene from the film. Considering the wealth of extra features on the R3 2-disc Korean DVD (which includes “making of” and “gore FX” documentaries) it would’ve been nice to see more imported supplements, but considering most foreign releases, one really can’t complain.
Re-visiting this years later, it’s easy to see why Chan wook Park went on to become one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers. Edgy, disturbing, and haunting Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a seminal masterpiece and a film that is guaranteed to stick with you for a long, long time.
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