Is it fair to judge an artist's work in relation to their other work? Okay, more specifically: Should an earlier film by Chan-Wook Park, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, be examined as individual work, or in relation to Park's more recent film, Oldboy?
I'm going to guess that no, it's not fair—but since when is life fair? Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hits Portland this weekend, and one can only assume that it does so because of the success of 2003's Oldboy, a dark and brutal film that turned into a word-of-mouth hit.
2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, however, is an earlier Park film (if only by a year) and it shows—it's slower, sloppier, and not nearly as entertaining. The theme of revenge again dominates. Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin) is a deaf mute, with a sister who needs an organ transplant. So Ryu and his girlfriend, Cha (Du-na Bae), come up with a plan to get cash: Kidnapping the daughter of Ryu's former employer, Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song).
Of course, everything goes to shit—Ryu and Cha are soon caught up in a web of revenge involving Ryu's former boss. Director Park particularly relishes the violence, and just as with Oldboy, there's plenty of imaginative, wince-inducing gruesomeness to be found. Unlike Oldboy, though, none of it matters: We're kept so distant from Ryu that the sadism feels neither earned nor justified. Instead of being a story that happens to feature violence and raw emotions, Mr. Vengeance instead feels like a series of violent situations strung together with a half-interesting narrative. After Oldboy, Mr. Vengeance feels like a rough draft. And since most people are going to see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance because they've already seen Oldboy, whether it's an unfair assessment or not is a moot debate—ultimately, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance simply doesn't hold a candle to Park's later film.