Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002 by Chan-wook Park

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance depicts a cold and bleak world full of only the most unfortunate of coincidences. It was a tough watch, honestly. From the overwhelming darkness of it to the overly ironic layers of plotting, I was having trouble enjoying this. It is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good – waiting too long to explain disjointed imagery leaving me confused for long swaths of the movie until I had forgotten what I was confused about, and then got an answer that only served to further confuse me because I couldn’t remember what question it was answering. Ultimately, it’s fairly graspable but it’s very frustrating in the moment. Perhaps on rewatch I’ll find it more enjoyable.

I’m a big fan of Oldboy, which itself is a very dark tale full of a lot of what I’m complaining about here. But that movie worked for me in a big way. I was able to see the sense of humor that was hidden amongst the darkness on a first watch there, and was never confused enough that I lost sense of the stakes. I watched Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance after listening to the latest episode of The Canon podcast where Devin Faraci said he sort of prefers this movie over Oldboy, mostly for the weirdness and energy of it. My memory of Oldboy is that it’s much more energetic than this movie; I thought the pacing here was contributing to my frustration with it. I will give it to Faraci that he’s right about the weirdness – this dips way into weirdness in a few sequences. But not the kind that’s odd enough to be enjoyable, the kind that’s odd enough to make you uneasy. I was not a fan of that feeling.

As far as complicated vengeance plots go, this is pretty twisty and wild and definitely held my attention. Despite being lost occasionally, I was always invested in just what crazy turn the story might take next. I think there’s plenty of value in that. I just wish the latter half of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance didn’t feel so “convenient.” There’s just a lot of contrived coincidences that lead to some of the crazier twists, and I kind of wish it wasn’t such a tightly scripted narrative. But it is pretty engaging, due in no small part to how watchable and fascinating Kang-ho Song is. He’s absolutely fantastic in everything I’ve seen him in, and here he’s elevating what could be a particularly gross episode of Law & Order: SVU to what many consider a must-see movie.

While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped, it’s clearly the work of an actual visionary. A director who knows exactly what he wants on the screen and why he wants to put it there. And he knows how to give those images maximum effect in his audience. I sincerely hope Chan-wook Park outlives me so I never have to live in a world without new movies from this master.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance scored ★★★☆☆

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