Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shows clear evidence of an artist at work. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even when it features cringe-inducing gore. It is full of artistic deconstructions of traditional narrative processes. In Breathless, Godard used jump cuts in part to excise everything except what really mattered; in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, director Park Chan-wook excises entire portions of the narrative, leaving the audience scratching its head, trying to figure out what is going on. Park’s excisions have the opposite effect of Godard’s … the French film leaves the viewer “out of breath,” but Park uses the time he’s gathered through his excisions to slow us down and give us pretty pictures, resulting in a film that even its champions (and there are many) admit is, if not boring, then at least slow.
Wesley Morris, who likes the movie, claims that “Park prizes craftsmanship over bargain-bin schlock,” suggesting that while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance works within a schlocky genre, Park rises above those roots because he is up to something bigger. As a fan of genre works that are true to the genre yet also transcend, I would have to agree that ambition is often a good thing when a smart director takes on genre work.
The question becomes, does Park actually accomplish what his champions claim for him? Morris says the film has “a deftly handled sociopolitical bent,” and he may be right … the characters certainly come from various levels of Korean class society. But this is where Park’s disdain for traditional narrative gets in the way. The movie is often wildly incoherent … one of the most interesting things about the film is that the same thing that pisses off its detractors is what its fans enjoy most … throwing stuff on a wall and waiting to see what sticks is not deft handling of sociopolitics. The movie is an excuse for Park to show what a fine director he is. Everything serves that purpose. Thus, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is no better than Friday the 13th, Part III … in both cases, filler exists solely to get to the “good stuff,” which in Park’s hands is a lot more exquisite than in a cheapie horror sequel … but so what? One of my favorite movies, Run Lola Run, is a showy delight, but analysis of the film begins, and to some extent ends, with an examination of that delight … no one says Run Lola Run is about sociopolitics, it’s about running, and red hair, and cool music, and video-game narrative. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a joy to look at, and far less boring than you might think from the above. But it isn’t “about” sociopolitics.
What does the film tell us about violence? That it’s cool and pretty. A fine message, doesn’t bother me, I’m not one who needs a positive message out of every movie. But there isn’t any depth to the movie’s examination of violence … it just is. Same thing with class … one of the Mr. Vengeances is rich, one is poor, and the plot kicks off because of the poverty of the poorer Mr. And that’s it … the film isn’t constructed to help us understand class difference, it’s constructed to get to the part in the movie where both men are set on vengeance, and we come to realize they are really the same guy, when you come right down to it. Again, a fine plot, if not unique. But the meaning? It ain’t about class, it’s about the two Misters getting vengeance in gory fashion, using the most hoary of plot devices, the “they’re really the same, when you come right down it” thingie.
It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.
(For a fascinating and more positive look at Park, focusing on a later film in his “vengeance trilogy,” check out “KDD on Lady Vengeance.”)