Cruelty and murder beget more of the same in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan-wook's torturously shallow and unpleasant meditation on the never-ending circle of violence. The first installment of the acclaimed Korean filmmaker's "revenge trilogy" which also includes last year's critically over-praised Oldboy, Park's latest - originally shot in 2002, but only now receiving a stateside release - is a multilayered payback saga in which characters search for satisfaction and salvation via bloodshed. Sleepy-eyed protagonist Ryu's (Shin Ha-kyun) condition as a deaf-mute epitomizes the director's depiction of retribution as a byproduct of people's inability to rationally, and empathetically, communicate with one another. Except, unfortunately, that the all-sizzle, no-substance filmmaker is far less interested in the way brutality engenders more brutality (or in any other meaningful philosophical or moral issues, for that matter) than he is in chic shock and gore. And consequently, his portrayal of rampant viciousness amounts to little more than a miasma of gratuitous gruesomeness that attempts to assume a cynical worldview but instead comes off as simply an immaturely titillating and horrifying exercise in stylish ugliness.
Fired from his job on the eve of having to pay for his sister's kidney transplant, Ryu turns to black market organ peddlers, an unwise decision that leaves him penniless, kidney-less and desperate for a means to save his beloved sibling. With the help of a radical terrorist girlfriend (Bae Du-na) who spends her days passing out pamphlets on the street while advising passersby to "Drive out the American products" and "No U.S. Army," Ryu decides to kidnap the young daughter (Han Bo-bae) of his callous fatcat former boss (Song Kang-ho), and Park posits their abduction as an act of class warfare orchestrated by the downtrodden working class against the wealthy urban elite. Profound cultural commentary, however, isn't in the cards, with the hectic, convoluted action quickly devolving into a spectacle of simple-minded, slogan-heavy pontificating and abject ghastliness characterized by suicide, self-mutilation, a foursome of teenage boys aggressively self-gratifying themselves, close-ups of slit throats and Achilles tendons, and - in the film's most unrealistic, offensive, and pointlessly dreadful moment - a grieving father forced to watch his recently drowned daughter get sliced open on an autopsy table.
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