Ryu's a young man who has had a rough life so far. Not only is he deaf and mute, but also his beloved sister lies on her deathbed desperately in need of a kidney transplant. His family doesn't have the money that they need to give her the life saving operation so Ryu does what he can working overtime in a grueling assembly line job in a local factory. He brings up the idea of donating one of his own kidney's to save his sister's life, but the sad fact of the matter is that his blood type doesn't match and as such it wouldn't do her any good anyway. To add insult to injury for the poor guy, the hospital finally has to tell poor Ryu that they're discharging his sister into his care due to the fact that he's unable to pay her medical bills any longer. He's essentially told to take her home and wait for her to die unless he can come up with the money he needs to pay for her surgery.
He decides to take matters into his own hands and try the underground illegal organ trade that he has heard whisper of. He tracks down a peddler in this rather repulsive trade and offers to exchange one of his own kidneys' for one that would match his sister's blood type, but again, this idea backfires and the only thing he gets out of this deal is one less kidney of his own.
Just as it's looking like the end of the game, Ryu gets a call from the hospital to let him know that if he can come up with the finances, they've finally found a suitable kidney that they can use for the operation. Ryu doesn't have the cash but he does have an idea – he and his friend decide to kidnap his boss' daughter and hold her for ransom. He figures the old man will pay up immediately to get his daughter back and that there won't be any complications in regards to the cops and of course, they don't intend to hurt the girl at all – they just need the cash to save his sister's life.
Ryu and his pal execute their plan and abduct the girl and it looks like things are going pretty smoothly at first as her old man has no problem whatsoever ponying up the cash to get her back. They release her, but for reasons that shouldn't be explained here for fear of spoiling the film, she doesn't wind up back in his possession immediately and because of this, he ends up going on the warpath to track down and take care of the kidnapping duo. Ryu has the life of his sister at stake, his boss has the life of his daughter at stake – both men are very desperate, and desperate times almost always call for desperate measures, regardless of intent.
A deliberately paced and incredibly bleak tale of revenge and conflict, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is not going to find a massive audience. This is a film that requires your complete and total attention to work – you can't just put this one on in the background while you've got company over and really get anything out of it. It's also a very different film from Chan-wook Park's better known Oldboy, not only in terms of pacing but in terms of characterization as well. Performance wise we're in pretty good shape. Ha-kyun Shin is excellent in the lead, completely sympathetic when he needs to be and very believable in the role. Ji-eun Lin, who plays his ailing sister, is also very good in her part. While no one in the film delivers anything on the level that Min-sik Choi does in Oldboy we're still treated to a very good cast making the most of their roles.
It should also be mentioned that because the film moves so slowly at times, the final half hour is all the more intense because when Park hits you over the head with some of the tricks he pulls in this film, you really don't see it coming and feel it all the more. There are a couple of truly cringe-worthy moments in this film that, if you haven't seen it before, come right out of left field and sucker punch you when you least expect it – and it's a great feeling when that happens. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance relies much more on mood and atmosphere than on over the top action set pieces or tough talking dialogue. Long stretches of the film are quite quiet, mellow even, which really adds to the element of surprise that's brewing just underneath the surface of it all.
Another interesting aspect of the film is that it doesn't ask you to pick sides in the conflict. It's a brave move to place the lead character in a role where he isn't necessarily the good guy, against another character who may in fact be just as noble if not more so than his opponent. It calls into question your own views on the situations that the two men find themselves in, and depending on that view it's very possible that you'll take away from the film something completely different than the person sitting beside you at any given time. While the ending doesn't leave much open to interpretation, the way that we get there does pose some interesting questions to the viewer, resulting in a pretty thought provoking and fairly unique (especially by average revenge movie standards) film experience.
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35.1 widescreen and this transfer is enhanced for anamorphic playback. Black levels look nice and deep and don't break up at all save for one or two instances of really mild mpeg compression showing up once or twice. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum, and there isn't any heavy line shimmering present to complain about, only some typically mild instances. The color scheme comes through very nicely on this transfer, the reds and greens looking especially bold without bleeding into the surrounding colors on the screen. There's a pretty decent level of both foreground and background detail and aside from a few instances where you'll pick up on some natural looking film grain there isn't any serious print damage to note either.
The Korean Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS 5.1 Surround Sound tracks on this DVD are quite good. The dialogue and sound effects are nice and clear and there's enough power in the lower end to make for a few very atmospheric moments throughout the film. The levels are well balanced and there aren't any problems with the performers getting buried in the sound effects or in the background score. Optional subtitles are supplied in both English and Spanish and they prove to be clean, clear, and easy to read and free of any noticeable typographical errors. The DTS mix edges out the Dolby Digital track just slightly thanks to some marginally stronger bass in the lower end, but other than that, there isn't much difference between the two tracks and both do a fine job of bringing the movie to life in your home theater. A Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included.
First up in terms of supplements is a commentary with the director of the film, Chan-wook Park, which his presented in Korean with English subtitles. Park is joined by Seung-wan Ryu, another director who also has a small role in the feature. This is a pretty active track and the two obviously have a good relationship together as they're quite enthusiastic about the discussion. Park covers a lot of technical details about the making of the film, certain locations used, and provides some anecdotes about things that happened during the production, while Ryu offers some 'friendly criticism' of Park's film and directing style which adds some humor to the track that makes it flow a little better than it probably would have otherwise. Park's comments about the climactic scene in the river towards the end of the movie are quite interesting as he explains why that scene was shot the way it was and what he was going for with that stand out moment in the film.
Though the packaging states that there is a Behind The Scenes documentary on this disc, it's unfortunately nowhere to be found (although Tartan did include one on their British release of the film, which is where the commentary track on this release originally appeared).
Tartan has also supplied a preview for the upcoming release of the third part of Park's 'Revenge Trilogy' - Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. This is a two and a half minute clip from the movie that sets it up nicely but that doesn't really tell us too much about it.
Rounding out the extra features are the US trailer for the feature, trailers for other Tartan Asia Extreme releases (Oldboy, H, and Spider Forest), and a still gallery of promotional photographs (twenty-five in total). There's also an insert inside the keepcase that contains a few images from the film and the chapter listing. The full motion animated menus that Tartan has created for this release are also pretty impressive, though the levels are pretty high on the sound effects during the transitions.
While not quite as strong or engrossing as Oldboy turned out to be, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is a tight thriller with some truly intense moments. It's very well acted and very well directed and Tartan has put together a pretty solid release for it's North American home video debut, making this one highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.