Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook is a man of extremes: extreme camera angles, extreme lighting contrast, extreme long shots, extreme color schemes, extreme bursts of sound or lack of sound, and—particularly in the "Vengeance Trilogy" that comprises three of his four solo feature films to date—extreme violence. The trilogy's later installments (2003's Oldboy and 2005's Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, which are linked thematically but not narratively), feature increasingly high-concept, streamlined plots, but the 2002 leadoff, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, is a messier film, both in design and in content. Park calculates his story and its stylish execution to devastating effect, but his intricate web of irony, foreshadowing, and tragic coincidence doesn't cohere until midway through, by which time Park has almost finished setting up his house of cards so its mesmerizing slow-motion disintegration can begin.
As Sympathy starts, deaf factory worker Shin Ha-kyun is struggling to help his dying sister, who needs a kidney transplant. In desperation, he turns to a group of illegal organ traffickers, who cheat him in a particularly gruesome way. Robbed of the money that would have paid for a legitimate transplant, he allows his militant-Marxist girlfriend (Bae Du-na) to talk him into kidnapping and ransoming the young daughter of the factory boss (Song Kang-ho) who recently fired him. Film kidnappings never run smoothly, but Park finds a new and colorful way for this one to go sour, leaving both Shin and Song running along parallel tracks, out for blood—which they get in immense quantities.
Once the revenge cycle kicks in, Park keeps the audience distanced from his two leads—Shin is mute and Song is all but silent himself, so the only hint of their internal chaos comes from their grotesque actions, which Park often shoots from dramatic overhead or long angles, or in lighting that turns them twisted and inhuman. His style is as bold and uncompromising as his story, which seems designed to show how revenge dehumanizes more than it satisfies, even for people who wholly deserve revenge. Both Shin and Song simultaneously draw sympathy and push it away, making the film a visceral, personal tragedy in a frame of bloodthirsty excesses and chilly stylistic artifice. It's a difficult balancing act, but Park crafts his layers carefully and masterfully. He's the kind of filmmaker who can meaningfully craft the gory details of an eye-gouging without ever forgetting the message that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.