Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance Review
As if it’s not hard enough being unable to hear or speak, Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) has to work double shifts in a sweltering factory because he’s so desperate for money. It’s not for some material possession though, or even to pay off some threatening gangsters, no, he's trying to pay medical bills for his sister (Ji-eun Lim), who’s going to die rather soon if she can’t get a kidney transplant. He is more than willing to give up one of his own kidneys, but not only does he not have enough money saved to pay for the operation, but his blood type doesn’t match his sister’s. That’s luck that doesn’t seem like it could get any worse, but of course it’s when you think that the really bad stuff happens, and Ryu is told he has to take his sister home and wait, because he can’t afford to keep her in hospital. With things looking so bleak he gets desperate, turning to back-street surgeons to supply him with a kidney in exchange for one of his own, but even that goes wrong and now Ryu has no kidney for his sister, only one of his own left, and to top it all the ‘doctors’ ran off with his money too. Surely this has to be rock bottom, right? One final blow is coming Ryu’s way, the hospital has found a kidney suitable for his sister, and they’re ready to transplant. They just need the money.
That, as eventful as it sounds, is only the start of the story, now he has to find a way to raise the cash for the transplant. So with the help of his best friend - a wannabe revolutionary and terrorist (Du-na Bae) - he plans to kidnap his boss (Kang-ho Song)’s daughter, get the money, and have her back in no time. No police, no hassles, nobody gets hurt, everyone walks away clean, in fact they plan on treating the girl so well she probably won’t even want to go home. Of course with the way Ryu’s luck is going there has to be a complication, and after the father delivers the money, and doesn’t get his daughter straight back, he doesn’t take things well. It doesn’t take him long to start tracking down the people that took his daughter, but both sides have the lives of their loved ones on the line, so things are going to get desperate, dirty, and very, very, bloody.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is far from a happy film, nothing seems to go right for any of the characters, and they all seem to be doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, making it impossible to choose a side. That makes everything all the more tragic, as horrible things keep happening to those on both sides, and things get ever increasingly bloody, characters lashing out in desperation - trying to find a way to redirect their pain. But you know it isn’t going to work, nobody is going to walk away from this with a happy sense of closure. It’s actually a film where mood is very important, by reputation I expected a much more action packed and bloody movie, but Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is actually a very slow moving film, which draws you in and forces you to empathise - sorry - sympathise with the leads. This also makes the violence much more shocking, the near banality of much of the film relaxing you so far that when the violence erupts it’s incredibly jarring. Watching traditional action movies full of violence, it’s difficult to be shocked at all, throwing brutality at the screen manages to desensitise you - if only for a couple of hours - to a world of horrors (just look at the acting in any Michael Bay movie if you need proof) but when it explodes out of nowhere you have no choice but to face it.
The acting is fantastic from both the leads - who Chan-wook Park previously directed in Joint Security Area - and it had to be. If either of them had faltered it could have allowed the audience to pick a side in this war, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’s biggest success is forcing you to care about both of these men, understand why both of them are doing what they are, and want neither of them to have to pay a price for their actions. It’s a hugely ambiguous movie morally, none of these people should be doing what they are, but you not only understand why they are, but actually end up wanting them to do it, murder and torture have never seemed like such sensible options, but in almost every case you’ll feel hugely torn, because they’ll be happening to people you’ve come to rather like.
Chan-wook Park directs the film superbly, not only by striking the right tone, but also by filling it with a wealth of little touches that not only make the film more real, but often oddly funny. Despite the slow pace and harsh nature of the film, there are quite a number of quirkily funny moments, and even more just plain quirky ones. He describes, in the documentary on this disc, how he felt that most audiences wouldn’t laugh at the movie, but nevertheless he thought of it as a comedy. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to call this a comedy, the little flourishes of humour help relieve the tension and lift the pace of the film, which is a real blessing as it does sadly feel even longer than its two hour running time. It’s probably unavoidable, setting this kind of mood and moving the action at this pace makes things feel longer, and so much happens through the film it isn’t a story that could be told easily in 90 minutes.
As such Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn’t a film that is easily loved - in fact it was far from a success in Korea, even though it reunited the team behind Joint Security Area, which became the highest grossing film in Korean history. Revenge movies usually offer catharsis, but with the audience sympathising with both sides there isn’t any, only tragedy. Combine that with a pace and feel that will discourage many, and you have a film that is laced with challenges, but if you’re willing to face them it can be a very rewarding experience - even if it is less than happy one.
Tartan just seem unable to do everything right, with their transfers it seems if it isn’t one thing it’s another, and while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance looks great in many ways, there are still problems. Although the packaging claims a 1.77:1 transfer, it is actually presented in its original 2.25:1 ratio, but sadly this is another NTSC to PAL conversion. Apart from being betrayed by the running time - at 121 minutes it matches the Korean release, instead of losing 4% to PAL speed up - the picture also suffers from a noticeable blurring effect as the extra frame is made up artificially. Strangely however, the image quality is much better than the Korean version in many other areas, taking a look at the review over at DVD Beaver (who sadly have no region comparison with the previous release) reveals screenshots that appear washed out in comparison, this release has much more vibrant colours and strong black levels. I don’t know how this compares to the previous Tartan release, they claim it has been remastered, but it is a real shame they couldn’t have used a true PAL transfer, as the effects of the conversion are somewhat irritating.
Tartan haven’t scrimped on the sound options, forgoing a dubbed track to bring you a choice of Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital EX 6.1 and DTS ES 6.1, all in the original Korean language. I went straight to the DTS track, and even without the technology to take advantage of that extra rear channel this was an enjoyable soundtrack. The film devotes some effort to bringing you into Song’s isolated world, and scenes such as his working day, devoid of any sound bar the intense factory noise sound excellent here. Much of the film is far less dramatic in its sound design, and while you may not always be being assaulted by sounds from all around, the soundtrack is never anything less than solid.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font, and are well positioned on the screen. They do occasionally go by a little quickly during dense dialogues sequences, but mostly they are comfortably readable. Sadly there are parts of the film where Korean text is displayed on the screen, which is important to the plot, and these sections are still not subtitled (they seem to be lacking from every release of the film, both in the UK and Korea) and while translations can be easily found online it is obviously not an ideal situation. You won’t lose the plot entirely by missing them, but you might be left scratching your head just a little.
Commentary from Director Chan-wook Park and Seung-wan Ryu
Although the packaging lists this as a solo commentary Chan-wook Park is joined by fellow director Seung-wan Ryu (Die Bad) - who cameos in the film - for this commentary track. It is in Korean, and subtitled, which isn’t ideal (if only because I often listen to commentaries whilst doing other things) but thankfully these two seem to be good friends and their comments remain lively, bringing life to the subtitles. Being fellow directors they have much to talk about on this commentary, Ryu seems to think Park is incredibly anal with his direction, focusing on many details others would ignore - though he does admit that this is one of his real strengths - but he does still like to joke at Park’s expense about the the little things he has paid attention to. Overall it’s a rather enjoyable track, and worth the extra effort to sit through.
This is a half hour look behind the scenes, and I mean that quite literally, as the camera captures footage of life on set with no narration or interaction. There are three brief interviews in the piece, but the vast majority of it is simply a title card introducing each segment. It is subtitled, so you always know what is going on, but sadly much of it isn’t hugely interesting.
The disc also carries the original theatrical trailer, and trailers for Battle Royale 2, Infernal Affairs, Infernal Affairs 2, A Tale of Two Sisters and Chan-wook Park’s thematic sequel, and second in his Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy.
With the success and praise that Oldboy has received still fresh in everyone’s minds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is prime for discovery by anyone it passed by. It’s a heavy going, brutal, film - sometimes visually, always emotionally. By its very nature it has to be in some way unsatisfactory, there’s just no way these characters you’ll become so involved with can approach a happy ending, even if they survive it, so be prepared for a rough ride.
The sample sleeve provided for this review also listed a number of other features, Chan-wook Park’s unreleased short film The Judge, Interview Footage, Filmographies and Jamie Russell Film Notes, none of which were present on the disc supplied. These extra features would have made the disc more worthy of the Collector’s Edition tag it has been given. Though the DTS soundtrack and the commentary do go some way to making this a decent upgrade on their previous release, Tartan are once again bogged down by a NTSC to PAL conversion that’s wholly unsatisfactory for many cinephiles.