No-holds-barred Korean director Park Chan-wook has said that a chance viewing of "Vertigo" inspired the philosophy major to become a filmmaker, and he has expressed an admiration for the realism of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled American novelists. But his sensibility more closely resembles that of Eastern European filmmakers who view the remorseless unraveling of fate with a detached, even darkly droll sense of absurdity.
In his relentless "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," he seems to envision the universe as a gigantic mechanism, an infernal machine, in which the individual who makes a mistake, as simple as pushing the wrong button, sets in motion an unstoppable chain of disaster, a stupendous, savagely violent domino effect.
Shin Ha-gyun's Ryu, a deaf-mute, is an aspiring artist, a slender young man with bleached, turquoise-streaked hair whose education has been underwritten by his devoted older sister (Im Ji-eun). But she has been stricken with kidney failure, and Ryu has taken an exhausting job at a Seoul smelting factory for an electronics manufacturer to support them both. With his blood type differing from his sister's, no organ donor in sight and his sister's agony escalating, Ryu in desperation turns to the black market. He follows two thugs to a derelict building where a heartless, drug-addicted old woman convinces him to give up one of his own kidneys in return for an appropriate one for his sister -- in addition to what amounts to his life's savings.
Ryu's girlfriend, Youngmin (Bae Du-na), a fiery anarchist, rages at him for his stupidity, and to make matters worse, he's laid off from his job. Sure enough, the next thing he knows a donor organ becomes available -- at the very price he paid for the organ he didn't receive. At this point, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is off and running, never letting up a second during its two-hour running time, in which Ryu's next desperate move triggers a series of acts of revenge by a clutch of angry and brutal individuals.
"Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is a stylish bloodbath relieved by shafts of dark humor. It unfolds in a flood of striking images accompanied by a soundtrack that makes much use of natural sounds -- the plunge of an elevator, the sliding of a coffin into a crematorium oven, and countless grisly scrapes and screeches. When it comes to serving up diabolical horror with bold, sophisticated glee, Park, best known for "Oldboy" (which this film preceded), is right up there with Dario Argento, Guillermo del Toro and Takashi Miike.
'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance'
MPAA rating: R for gruesome violence, strong sexuality, coarse language and drug use
Times guidelines: Entirely inappropriate for children
A Tartan Films release. Director Park Chan-wook. Producer Lim Jin-gyu. Screenplay by Lee Yong-jong, Lee Jae-soon, Lee Mu-yeong, Park Chan-wook. Cinematographer Kim Byung-il.
Editor Kim Sang-beom. Music Uhuhboo Project. Costumes Shin Seung-heui. Production designer Choe Jung-hwa. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
Exclusively through Thursday at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.