Film & DVD Review
A deaf-mute (Shin Ha-Gyun) is desperate to save his sister's life, but can't raise the money for the kidney transplant. Out of desperation, he and his girlfriend kidnap a wealthy businessman's (Song Kang-Ho) daughter in order to raise the cash, only to find that the cost of their actions will have to be paid in torture and pain.
South Korean cinema is an area of films that I have only really very recently been getting into. Recently at Cannes Quentin Tarintino was quoted as saying that Japanese and South Korean cinema are producing some of the best films around today, and at the Cannes film festival another film from Park Chan-Wook called Old Boy won one of the top prizes. That film apparently is the second film in a planned "Vengeance Trilogy", and the first is this one, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, another film that can help fly the flag for South Korean cinema and show the world how good it really is.
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance tells the story of a deaf mute, who is trying to raise money in order to be able to pay for his sister to have a kidney transplant operation. With circumstances going against him for various reasons, he and his girlfriend are forced into kidnapping a wealthy man's daughter, and using the ransom to pay for his sister's operation. However, things don't go the way they had planned, and soon everyone wants vengeance.
It is probably best to point out early that Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is not a happy film. You will not leave the film with any sort of sense of warmth or comfort, but will be more harrowed and possibly even shocked by the end. This, however, should also not be taken as a negative comment or any sort of criticism, it is a credit to the film that these feelings can be left with you, yet you will still undoubtedly know that what you have seen was a very good film, full of emotion.
Where the film differs from normal film convention is that there is no out-and-out good guy. The film does not have a hero. A lot of the heroes in films we see are born in vengeance, Spiderman and Batman, to name two celebrated superheroes each lost a family member close to them, and that is what brought about those alter-egos. They were the good guys, fighting for justice. That does not happen in this film. As the events of the film unfold, it is clear that some of those guilty of wrong doing, were only in that position because of very good intents. And as the vengeance is spread, other people don the tag of Mr. Vengeance, and in each case their reasoning is utterly understandable, and I believe a probable majority of people would have done the same things.
Despite the vengeance that is being sought, and the torture and killing that ensue, as the title of the film suggests, those guilty of the torture or killing still manage to emote sympathy from the viewer. Despite these people committing acts that are by all accounts acts of evil, torture and murder, they are still not seen as bad guys. Credit for this has got to go to the people who wrote the screenplay, as they have made the characters real, full of emotion and caring, allowing the audience to relate and understand them and their actions more. They aren't the only ones who deserve the credit though; a large chunk of this must be given to the principal cast.
Shin Ha-Gyun has the lead as the deaf-mute Ryu. Being a deaf mute, he obviously has no lines to speak, which allows him to concentrate more on his performance. He convincingly portrays a character who is full of caring for his sister and girlfriend. In the scenes with his sister in particular, his eyes show this feeling beyond what he could do with words. Bae Doo-Na has the role of Ryu's girlfriend, Young-Mi. She comes across as the more rebellious type, but one who cares deeply for Ryu, and is willing to do anything for him, regardless the cost.
The last of the three main leads is Song Kang-Ho, an actor who I'm guessing is one of the bigger names in South Korean cinema. And he is one of those bigger names for a reason, basically he is a superb actor. He plays President Park, a self-made wealthy businessman, whose daughter is kidnapped by Ryu and his girlfriend. The range of emotions that you see him go through gives vast credit to his acting range and abilities. The love and pain in his eyes are clear for all to see. One of the most memorable scenes for this has to be the autopsy scene. Here you don't see the autopsy at all, just hear the noises as the camera is focussed on his face alone. His reaction to the sounds, and his uncomfort at what is going on makes the scene more disturbing than if they had shown the autopsy taking place.
Not only does the film feature a gripping story with excellent acting, but the filming style also adds greatly to the atmosphere. Park Chan-Wook decided to use many static camera shots for most scenes. You see the set in the picture frame and then the action moves around within this frame. It is very common in most films for the camera to follow the action so that it is always pretty much in the foreground and in the centre of the screen, thereby attaining maximum coverage and focus from the viewer. This is not the case here. The camera stays still, sometimes important actions are taking place in the background at the top left of the screen. and sometimes the cast walk on and off the screen when desired. This gives the viewer more of a "fly-on-the-wall" sort of feeling, which for me heightened the realism of what was going on. This was especially the case for the more violent scenes, as even though the violence may not have been at the forefront of the screen, the static camera gave it a far more gritty and brutal feel. You could not see close up what was happening, but you knew what was going on, and with your imagination these scenes became extraordinarily violent, yet with absolutely no glamorisation of the violence.
Another break from general film convention was the use of a background music soundtrack, or rather lack thereof. Watch all the recent Hollywood blockbusters and they'll all have a composed orchestral score or something like that, but Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance opts more often than not for silence. I personally am a big fan of this technique, as I've stated in my review of natural City where the final fight was made far more powerful because of the silence. With the tone of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance as it is, silence is more appropriate than ever. I feel that when a character is supposed to being going through moments of intense emotional turmoil and pain, if the actor is able to portray this, then music can do nothing to benefit it and increase the emotion. The addition of music, more often than not, over dramatises it and brings it more into melodrama than proper emotion. In Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance there is a lot of emotional pain from many characters, and this is not diluted from the use of music. There is definite truth in the statement 'Silence is golden'! The little music that there is though is unobtrusive.
There is little else to say about this film. It is brutal, it is gritty and it certainly is a very depressing film and not one to watch if you are in a happy perky mood. There are also small elements of very dark humour in there as well, which I found myself feeling a little guilty at laughing at, as the circumstances that they occur in are most definitely not humorous for those involved. Maybe it is just my sick sense of humour! Regardless, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance despite its harrowing story, is a fine example of the fine quality of film that South Korean is capable of producing.
Audio & Subtitles
As far as full length feature films go, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance doesn't have that much in the way of a soundtrack, due to the large amounts of silence. However, as the saying goes, it's quality over quantity that counts. I personally found the Dolby Digital soundtrack to be very good on this DVD. The surround channels, front and rear, are used when needed. There isn't anything flash being spread around, but just general sound effects. When someone walks off the left of the screen, the sound moves to the front left channel. This happens all the way through the film with the sound following the position of the characters. However, there were literally one or two instances where I thought the sound would have been better coming from the rear speakers, when it was still coming from the front, but that is just me being picky! Everything was nice and clear, and basically very good!
The subtitles were basically perfect for spelling and grammar. I didn't notice a single error in that regard throughout the entire film. However, where they receive negative marks is that no writing is subtitled. There are several notes, newspapers etc. on screen throughout the film, some of which I am reasonably sure are quite important for the film, so knowing what these were saying would have been a big advantage!
The anamorphic widescreen picture was also of a very high standard. Detail levels looked very good in most scenes, with the picture being crisp and sharp. There were a few instances when it became noticeably softer, but this was short lived. Colours were well reproduced, with each colour looking nice and bold with good contrast levels. However, these colours were also a little paler looking in the sections that had the noticeably softer print. I was not aware of any grain in the film.
DVD & Extras
The extras on this DVD feature a 30-minute Behind The Scenes segment. The most interesting part of this features the cast learning sign language and interacting with deaf people. The rest of the featurette is just seeing some scenes being filmed with a few snippets of interview like footage of the cast. Next up there is the original theatrical trailer, Filmographies of Park Chan-Wook, Song Kang-Ho and Bae Doo-Na and lastly (relating to this film) Jamie Russell film notes. I've no idea who Jamie Russell is, but this 7-page text based read is quite informative and is definitely worth a read. Lastly on the DVD is the Asia Extreme trailer reel, which has trailers for Happiness Of The Katakuris, City Of The Lost Souls, Nowhere To Hide, A Snake Of June, Dark Water and Shiri.
With this DVD release of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, you are given a very good complete package. An excellent film on an above average DVD (especially by Tartan's standards). It is worth noting that the Korean release also does not subtitle the notes that appear in the film. I cannot recommend this film highly enough, and if you are looking for something that isn't as cheery as the usual film fare, then this is most definitely the film for you.
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