The Movie Before Oldboy:

on Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

You’ve probably heard of Oldboy. It was Korean director Chan-wook Park’s breakout film, meeting with presumably unexpected levels of foreign critical acclaim. Spike Lee remade it one time, but it’s best to gloss over that part of this tale. If you’re an avid Sequart reader you might remember a couple of articles about the movie that aired back during Manga Week. One of those was pretty good too. Anyway, Oldboy is an amazing movie, and the only Chan-wook Park movie I’d seen. Which is decidedly un-obsessive of me, because it’s part of a trilogy. Granted it’s a conceptual trilogy not a narrative one. Oldboy is the middle film in the director’s “Vengeance Trilogy” (henceforward without quotes). I finally got around to watching the rest of the trilogy (thank you Netflix for this gift you have given me) and wanted to share some thoughts I had on them, starting, as one does, at the beginning. (I debated quoting Alice in Wonderland for a second here, but that’s kind of clichéd at this point isn’t it?)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the assured first entry in the trilogy. It’s hard to talk about the story of this movie without entering into broad spoilers. The structure’s pretty unique and I’d like to talk about it. If you want to go in completely cold…well, then you shouldn’t be reading reviews of this movie. If you were willing to read a review in theory, nothing I’m going to say is so revealing that I would caution you against it. (In case you were wondering – yes – Oldboy is the only film in the trilogy to have a conventional last-act twist). I feel like I’m already rambling and I have so much more to say. Buckle in guys.

The movie opens introducing us to its main character, a deaf twenty-something guy with a dying sister. In order to get his sister a kidney for a transplant, this guy starts dealing with some pretty unsavoury characters. Then irony piles on top of irony and he and his girlfriend start hatching a plan that doesn’t quite go according to plan (the joke is I’m terrible at writing). This is roughly the first half of the movie. The second half deals with the titular vengeance, except that someone else gets involved. It becomes pretty unclear which character the titular moniker is meant to refer to. Basically both the Mr. Vengeances are worthy of our sympathy. That’s a pretty standard mindfuck, but the clean halfway break ends up making the whole thing feel way more unique than it has any right to be. It’s an unusual structure breaking away from one character to the other, but not entirely. It all makes the movie kind of hard to pin down. It’s twisty in a bone-deep warped kind of a way. It’s a careful warp though; instead of smacking of bad scripting it feels like carefully constructed unease.

The deaf main character (That’s how writing works right, you open one paragraph referencing the opening of the paragraph before?) allows Chan-wook Park to do some very interesting things with the soundscape of the movie (something he repeats later on in his filmography, but that’s for a few articles down the road). He doesn’t drop away the soundtrack or anything too simplistic like that. Or rather he does, but only for a few strict POV shots. The rest of the time he creates a soundscape made of mundane background noises, the kind of things that might normally get left off a soundtrack entirely. Humming machinery and trickling water and other insignificant sonic motifs repeated at length. The whole thing serves as almost a reminder of the unimportance of sound. Sort of highlighting why it doesn’t really matter that the main character is deaf (until it really matters). It also serves another purpose – it heightens the constructed feeling of realism coursing throughout the movie.

This movie is realistic in the same way a Coens movie is. Long takes, static shots, and a constructed illusion of realism. Basically it’s framed and decidedly false, but the wonky structure and representational filmmaking separates the audience from the sort of meta-realization Chan-wook Park’s later films employ to varying degrees. Of course Chan-wook Park will occasionally compose shots in a rather painterly and false fashion, reminiscent of Akira Kurasawa’s directorial eye. This only tends to come at heightened moments though. (The primary example of this is too spoiler-linked to delve into, but basically it doesn’t show up in force as a technique until the film is already basically over.)

In fact the entire movie seems like one long riff on a Kurasawa movie. The structure, story, and imagery bear a distinct resemblance to the classic Kurasawa film High and Low. The multitudinous similarities between the films ensure that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance starts to read as Chan-wook Park’s High and Low after a while. High and Low is about a rich Japanese executive whose child is targeted for a kidnapping just as he makes an important business move. The kidnappers grab his chauffeur’s child by mistake and he has to decide whether or not he’ll sacrifice his company to save the boy. The movie has a structural break in the middle too, where the second half leaves the executive character to turn into a police procedural akin to Fritz Lang’s M. The two halves of the movie let Kurasawa reflect on the disparity between the upper and lower classes in Japan at the time. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned with the exact same issues, or at least how that same disparity manifests itself, in modern day Korea. Chan-wook Park doesn’t spend as much time setting the movie in an upper class environment, making the contrast a little less effective. He does repeatedly reinforce how shitty the poor characters have it, as well as showing off some even poorer characters, but there isn’t enough contrast to feel like any kind of blame is being levied at the upper class (despite there being a mouth-piece character who vocalizes that exact thought regularly but almost comically ineffectively). The movie doesn’t feel that concerned with strict black-and-whites. Or, if that was the intent, the sympathetic rich character taken in isolation from a rich environment rather undoes it.

It’s an impressive movie, especially when compared to its thematic sequel. It’s easy to see why Oldboy was his breakout film. It’s more thrilling, more cinematic, and has that killer last-act twist. Overall it’s a little more accessible, and maybe slightly better realized. Of course these differences are mainly in style, as far as actual quality goes the differences are fairly incremental. Both are excellent, and wildly different. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has a more experimental structure and slightly more detached tone, while maintaining a level of brutality Chan-wook Park seems to employ frequently. It’s all rather Coen-esque. Chan-wook Park’s version of the Coens doing High and Low. Other than thematics that feel slightly swallowed by the story, the movie is almost perfect in execution, a fine opening to his brilliant trilogy.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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