In life and in Chan-wook Park movies, no one gets out alive. This predecessor to Oldboy, now receiving a belated American distribution, evinces the same graphic-novel sensibility as its companion piece (a third film, Sympathy for Mrs. Vengeance, completes Park's "revenge trilogy"). Park pays most of his attention to visceral style, but he sketches in enough about his characters to make them frighteningly relatable.
The highly effective plot—which conjures memories of Kurosawa's seminal neo-noir High and Low—finds a deaf-mute factory worker (Shin Ha-kyun) deciding he cannot stand by and watch his sister's kidney fail. After a foolish pact with organ traders and despite his sympathetic nature, the man reluctantly accepts his girlfriend's suggestion to orchestrate the kidnapping of a little girl from an industrialist (Song Kang-ho). Cruel fate and bad choices take the characters down a path of revenge, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance climaxes with pitiless rages of ever more startling violence. Park uses deliberate pacing, score and sound to unbearably subjective effect, but he proves just as capable of quiet restraint as bloody extremity.
What keeps Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance from the greatness of its two successors is in the calibration of its elements of hipness and heart (in the sense of emotional despair); Park refined the balance better in Oldboy, and best in Lady Vengeance. For a neo-noir, Mr. Vengeance is rather bright and glib in its sick humor and cool irony, and it's a turn-off when Park seems to be enjoying the characters' suffering rather than simply depicting it or, y'know, showing sympathy. Though Park's high style can evince an enfant terrible smugness amidst a droll interplay of comedy and misery, his films aren't pointless. Here, he brings to life the horribly imaginative convolutions that arise out of intense, guilty grief. Second guessing is the worst punishment, mitigated only by the cold comfort of revenge.
Palisades Tartan has brought its jewel in the crown to Blu-ray with its four-disc Vengeance Trilogy box set, collecting Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance gets a mightily impressive A/V treatment. The film looks so much better than I remember it looking on the relatively washed-out DVD. Color and detail are sharp, and shadows and textures are well-defined, with no sign of unsightly digital artifacting. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix can likewise be considered definitive, easily besting its DVD counterpart by providing a surprisingly immersive soundscape. Naturally, the film has optional subtitles.
A Best Buy exclusive until June 15, 2010, the set is currently available in a limited-edition tin enclosing three standard Blu cases and a lovely thirty-page booklet including essays by director Eli Roth (Hostel), producer Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers), stunt coordinator/author John Kreng, and writer-director/producer Susan Montford (Splice), as well as a brief Giant Robot interview with Park.
The extensive bonus features kick off with a thorough and thoughtful audio commentary with writer/director Park Chan-wook in conversation with actor/filmmaker Ryu Seung-wan. Their conversation covers all bases, from the project's inception to its completion, the work with the actors, and the film's themes.
"The Process of Mr. Vengeance (Making Of)" (32:05, SD) mostly focuses on the actors' process, especially in acquiring the requisite skill of sign language; there's plenty of great behind-the-scenes footage from pre-production and production.
"Mr. Boksu Story Retrospective" (17:22, SD): features interviews with actors Song Kang-ho, Bae Doona, Shin Ha-kyun, Lim Ji-eun, and Han Bo-bae.
In "Jonathan Ross on Park Chan-wook" (16:58, SD) British chat-show host/critic Ross gives an overview of Park's career that covers J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Oldboy; included are film clips and interview clips of Park.
"Crew Interviews" (40:03, SD) comprises chats with Park, Ryu Seung-wan, director of photography Kim Byeong-il, lighting technician Park Hyun-won, actor Ryu Seung-beom, artistic director Oh Jae-won, and set decorator Ahn Sung-hyon.
Also included are "Storyboards" (9:57, SD), the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:47, SD), and "Soundtrack and Photos" (1:51), a quick montage of film stills set to the film's score.
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