This is one of those times when I am so grateful to have a blog.
After seeing Park Chan-wook‘s magnificent film "Oldboy" the other day, I sought out the first entry of his Vengeance trilogy – the 2002 box office failure "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (aka "Vengeance is Mine" – "Boksuneun naui geot") which is the most intense, affecting tragedy I’ve ever experience outside of Shakespeare or the Greeks. Brilliantly photographed , the story is told with breathtakingly powerful images juxtapositioned to mark the passage of time, the emotional states of the characters, (compare the action’s of one actor’s face during two separate autopsy scenes) and the surprises of the plot. The film is a masterpiece of story construction, pulling off as only one of its many unexpected feats …
[slight to medium SPOILERS below the jump]
the switch to a new protagonist one hour into its two hour running time. In the first half Protagonist One suffers a series of nearly unbearable injustices which lead him to commit a criminal act that then leads to a terrible tragedy. The story moves to its inexorable conclusion in a manner that is never less than emotionally spellbinding. The film is violent (not unexpectedly so for those familiar with contemporary Asian cinema) and Park’s deliberate selections of which violent acts to show directly and which to partially obscure is another of his masterstroke’s in guiding the emotions of the viewer. Like all great tragedy there is no cure for it, nothing to be done, we almost cannot bear the sadness, but, as in Hamlet or Othello, as in the Oresteia and in Oedipus, we find it impossible to turn away.
I can speculate why this film was not as financially successful initially as "Oldboy." "Oldboy" is more epic. "Oldboy" has more humor and that humor is broader. So is the violence. "Sympathy" is not without its touches of humor, mercifully. Yet even the jokes – an apartments thin walls, political flyers handed out in an absurd situation – turn the wheel of fate foward. "Oldboy" is a great film also, a masterpiece in its own right, but for all of its innovations and surprises, a somewhat more traditional story – at least until its unexpected final scene in the mountains.
One of the few negative Amazon reviews of "Sympathy" complains that film doesn’t tell us who to root for — there is no clear good vs. evil in "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." Exactly.