Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002),the first film in Korean director Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy (followed by Oldboy which is outstanding and Lady Vengeance which I have not seen), starts off slow and mundane but builds effectively into an intense, violent revenge shocker in which Park tests out some of the concepts he would put to better use in Oldboy.
Spoiler alert: I'll do my best conceal surprises, but the structure of the film might reveal some of the plot twists just by my summarizing it.
Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf-mute former art student working to pay for his sister's (Ji-Eun Lim) kidney transplant after he learns his own is not compatible. When he gets laid off, he makes a deal with black marketeers for a suitable organ, but the exchange leaves him without the money to pay for her operation. With his girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Doona Bae), Ryu kidnaps his ex-boss's daughter for ransom. But things go terribly wrong, and soon, both Ryu and his Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song) are seeking revenge: Ryu against the black marketers and Park against Ryu.
Sympathy takes a long time to get going with its plot, and even then, I was confused because I didn't remember all the characters' names. I didn't catch Ryu's name until the film was almost half over, and I kept confusing his sister with his girlfriend. Park is also not much of a figure until the second half, and then he becomes one of the main characters. The first hour could have trimmed thirty minutes to get things moving.
But once things reach the second hour, boy do they pick up. Chan-wook Park films many of the violent scenes both in long shots takes with no cuts. While we are spared up-close, explicit details, we see quite plainly the brutality of one character getting his head smashed with a baseball bat and similar killings. In other instances, Park places the viewer in the midst of the acts, creating disorientation while simultaneously allowing the viewer to feel the impact of the various blows. One character is stabbed by four thugs, and each jab elicits a wince. Make no mistake; this is a bloody picture. A punctured neck artery results in a geyser of blood.
The point Park is making is how violence and retribution came appear in seemingly normal people. Ryu is not a bloodthirsty kidnapper; he's a desperate brother, and he tries to minimize harm. The father is a businessman who means well, loves his daughter, and winds up descending into savagery and torture after what happens to her. Revenge, instead of providing closure and peace, leads to more pain.
Park also works in some sardonic humor. The black marketeers buy an ice cream cake to use the box to transport organs in. Ryu has trouble getting the little girl to cry so he can take her picture for the ransom note. They may not be laugh out loud hysterical, but they generate some wry smiles.
I think of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as a dry run for Oldboy, and as the first in the series, it is effective. It's slow to get going and rough around the edges, but once it gets going, look out.