Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) Movie Review

“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” represents an all-too familiar problem with many South Korean films that I’ve encountered of late: It lacks passion. There is a large contingent of South Korean filmmakers who believes the only way to make a movie is to be completely detached from it. As a result, there’s no passion in the acting, no passion in the writing, no passion in the direction, and certainly no passion in the cinematography. What you have, then, is a technically proficient movie that has no life.

And because the filmmakers have so little passion for their movie, we, the audience, are left to wonder why they bothered making the movies in the first place. Even more astonishing is why the filmmakers think we’re going to just sit there like a ton of useless rock and stare blankly at the screen, stripped of any emotion investment. Surely there’s someone else out there that can use the money (and the high production values that can be achieved with said money) and make a movie worth watching, a movie that stirs emotion, that brings about passion, that has a soul.

“Vengeance” is so lacking in any semblance of intimacy or even an inkling of conviction that it became a chore to watch. Similar Korean fare such as “My Beautiful Days” and “Bad Guy” have made watching movies and reviewing them a job, which is something I never want this gig to become — ever. I demand very little from a film, but when a movie turns my love for the art form into a test of endurance and patience, then I have nothing but disdain for it.

“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is about Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a deaf-mute who, in an attempt to save his ill sister, agrees to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Park Dong-jin). Ryu “agrees” to the plan because it’s his slightly loony liberal activist girlfriend who hatches the idea. Since we are watching a “serious” drama here, there’s no doubt the plan will go awry, people will die, and because Dong-jin has top billing, there’s a good chance he’ll be coming after the people who took his daughter.

I am loathe to eviscerate “Vengeance” because the movie is so technically competent and what appears onscreen is obviously what the filmmakers intended. But I cannot recommend a film that has so little going for it, and seems to be an exercise in style over…nothing. The characters mind as well be faceless mannequins with their character names stenciled on their foreheads for all the emotional attachment they bring to the screen. In fact, by the time the businessman’s daughter is kidnapped, it took me nearly 5 full minutes to realize that the kidnapping had already taken place!

Which leaves me with only one more point to make: The film takes more than a little nod from Ron Howard’s kidnapping movie “Ransom”, starring Mel Gibson as the wealthy businessman whose child is taken, and who decides to fight back. I bring this up only because the filmmakers of “Vengeance” seem to have seen that movie as well, since there is one scene in “Vengeance” that is a complete steal from “Ransom”, dialogue and all.

I can see it now: the filmmakers of “Vengeance”, sitting there watching Howard’s “Ransom”, and saying to themselves: “You know, ‘Ransom’ is a pretty good movie, but it’d be even better if we made it completely passionless!” I’m just kidding, of course. Or am I?

Then again, this whole notion of Detached Filmmaking may just be a South Korean fad. It seems to be filmmaking for the sake of filmmaking, and nothing more (or less, for that matter). There is no depth or humanity to anything; the characters are lifeless ants and urgency has been replaced by tedium.

Chan-wook Park (director)
CAST: Kang-ho Song …. Park Dong-jin
Ha-kyun Shin …. Ryu
Du-na Bae …. Cha Yeong-mi

Buy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on DVD