* ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)
Just think, I could have seen two more hours of Game Four of the American League Championship Series instead of this. Sure, at the time, as far as I knew, it would have been watching the Yankees sweep my team. But, then, I couldn't have known that seeing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance might possibly be an even more excruciating experience.
Not all movies have to be uplifting or positive, but one has to wonder about the motivation for making a movie as relentlessly grim as Sympathy. Life sucks, it says, and this misery spreads to other people with no respite in sight, no ultimate point to it, and no way of overcoming it. Oh, and by the way, you've just paid actual money to have someone tell you that.
Sympathy starts by introducing us to Ryu, a deaf-mute struggling to find a way to get his sister the kidney transplant she needs. When an attempt to buy one on the black market leaves him robbed and short a kidney (and a job) himself, he and his activist girlfriend hit upon the idea of kidnapping a child for ransom. This goes about as well as one might expect, setting the movie on a course of ever-greater disasters.
I suppose that, given its goals, this movie is brutally effective. The initial tragedies are terrible and shocking and sad, while the later acts of revenge are gruesome and ultimately hollow. Director Chan-wook Park has a knack, especially in the first half of the movie, for allowing horror to happen quietly and matter-of-factly, and using intertitles rather than voice-over to give us Ryu's narration is a fine reminder of how different his deafness makes him.
The ninety-degree turn this movie makes midway through, though, just kills it. We get a second main character who arguably supplants Ryu for the rest of the film's run-time, and while I'm all for violence being ugly and off-putting, there's nothing more to the movie after that; it's just wallowing. The remainder becomes too turgid to be enjoyable exploitation, but too one-note to be good drama. It counts on the emotional attachments the audience forms with the characters in the first half, but doesn't do anything to further them. Indeed, Ryu's "narration" stops, putting the audience at a remove.
A film can still be compelling even if it is, ultimately, bleak and pessimistic. unfortunately, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance loses its hook into the audience soon after it loses all hope.