The first in Korean director Park Chan-wook's "vengeance" trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is expertly crafted pulp with an overwhelmingly misanthropic outlook. Followed by Oldboy, which received a limited release in the U.S., and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which just opened in Korea, the film confirms Park's mastery of a niche style of cinema that is glossy, morbid and childishly provocative. The three films are championed by some critics, but have yet to connect with audiences of any real size, either here or in Asia.

Told with a glacial pace and fractured time frame, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance begins with a letter written by Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute with dyed green hair who gave up art school to help pay his sister's (Im Ji-eun) medical bills. Unwilling to wait for a donor, Ryu resorts to black-market organ dealers to buy her a kidney. When he is double-crossed in a ghastly manner, Ryu's girlfriend Young-mi (Bae Doona) comes up with a plan. She and Ryu will kidnap Yoosun (Han Bo-bae), the daughter of factory owner Park (Song Kang-ho). A political crank, Young-mi sees the crime as a revolt against the class structure. Since Ryu has just been fired from Park's factory, he goes along with the scheme.

When she learns what her brother has done, Ryu's sister kills herself. Yoosun in turn is killed by a wandering spastic. Helped by the police, Park sets out to avenge his daughter. Meanwhile, Ryu and Young-mi seek revenge against the organ dealers. The final half-hour of the film is a bloodbath in slow-motion, with death served up by knife, baseball bat, car battery and bone saw.

Director Park has a tremendous visual style, distilling locations to their essentials and framing them with meticulous precision. But Park can't resist pushing too hard, splattering his canvas with rapists, thugs, abused children, indifferent cops, masturbators and palsied bystanders. Like Lars von Trier, he plays his victims for laughs. The director's curdled vision makes Sympathy, no matter how elegant it may look, a chore to sit through.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance followed on the heels of JSA: Joint Security Area, a bona-fide hit that, apart from its sadistic streak, could have been released by a Hollywood studio. Park is after a different audience here, one that finds morality ironic and violence funny. As a result, watching Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a lot like watching a precocious child pulling wings off a fly. Park is an undeniably talented filmmaker, but he has chosen to expend his energies on material that is clearly beneath him.
-Daniel Eagan