A child kidnapping goes horribly wrong, with escalating consequences on both sides, in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” a gripping psychodrama, marbled with blackly ironic humor, that establishes director Park Chan-wook among the top ranks of Asian filmers. Stunningly composed in widescreen, with an elliptical, off-kilter feel that makes pic play as a kind of Asian Greek tragedy, this looks set for major fest kudos in the West prior to specialized distribution in upscale venues. In South Korea, this fourth feature by the helmer of B.O. super-hit “Joint Security Area,” went out March 29 as another strong entry in a banner year artistically for local production.
Aside from its use of widescreen as well as two of the same actors, “Sympathy” bears little resemblance to the more commercial “JSA,” a taut mystery-drama set among North and South Korean guards on the DMZ. Film is more similar to Park’s second feature, “Trio” (1997), with its theme of social outsiders challenging Korea’s rigid status quo. But with its controlled, stylized look and heavy dose of claustrophobic Korean fatalism, “Sympathy” is a quantum leap over the anarchic antics of “Trio.”
Opening 45 minutes is a tour de force of direction, with a foreboding atmosphere built under the main titles as a radio announcer reads a message from a deaf-mute man that prefigures events to come. The words are by Ryu (Shin Ha-gyun), an intense weirdo with dyed hair who works in a smelting factory and inhabits his own silent world, oblivious to the din both at work and in his downscale apartment building.
Ryu idolizes his sister (Im Ji-eun), who urgently needs a kidney transplant, and when he’s laid off and then tricked out of his savings by organ traffickers, his wacko girlfriend, Yeong-mi (Bae Du-na, from “Take Care of My Cat”), suggests kidnapping his former boss’s daughter to pay for his sister’s operation. Yeong-mi sees it as social revenge; Ryu, initially scared of the consequences, finally agrees after seeing another laid-off worker attempt hara-kiri outside the boss’s home.
In one of pic’s many narrative jumps, we never witness the actual kidnapping: The young girl, Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae), is led to think she’s just spending some time with friends of her father. However, while Ryu is out collecting the ransom — in a sequence that shows helmer’s commercial smarts — his sister discovers the reason for Yu-sun being at their apartment and takes an irreversible step that makes the whole plan start to unravel.
Though slowly paced, the giant first act makes compulsive viewing, but is only a taster for what is to come. After Yu-sun is accidentally killed, the cops are called in and the dramatic focus shifts to Yu-sun’s father, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, the lead in “JSA”). A wealthy industrialist whose wife left him when the economy went sour, he sees himself as honorable and doesn’t understand why he’s been targeted for a kidnapping.
Park initially suspects the worker who tried to commit hara-kiri but soon stumbles on the truth. At the 90-minute point, the movie’s repressed violence starts to come to the surface, as Ryu takes revenge on the organ traffickers and Park takes terrible vengeance on both Ryu and his g.f.
Some auds may find the bloody third act hard to accept after the highly controlled opening and more reflective central section. But aside from being one level removed from reality, it’s very typical of Korean drama as a whole and — as the pic’s final twist underlines — is always handled in a kind of bleakly humorous way. In terms of script construction, the series of coincidences that lead Park to Yeong-mi and Ryu seem more of a stretch.
Compared with his roles in “JSA” and “The Foul King,” Song is in restrained mode here, easing into the character of the aggrieved victim in small increments of rage. Shin, also from “JSA” and “Foul King,” makes Ryu an almost childlike, tragic figure, reining back the character’s potentially comic side and — especially with Bae, as his trashy, loud-mouthed girlfriend — showing him more as a pawn, squeezed between economic necessity and misguided affection. Supporting roles, such as Lee Dae-yeon’s cop, are succinctly etched.
The look of the film is always interesting, with d.p. Kim Byung-il’s setups full of incidental detail but never overcrowded; production design in interiors (Ryu and Yeong-mi’s apartments, the organ trafficker’s basement) is equally rich. Pic could take some minor trimming in the second half, but otherwise plays OK.