When you’re watching movie violence designed to give you a queasy shudder, context is all. The ear-severing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs is a cheerful sadist’s dance of hell, but it’s also one element in a carefully constructed collage of brutality; it earns its cringe factor. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, on the other hand, when a man stands over the corpse of his 11-year-old daughter, recoiling (along with the audience) as an autopsy saw slices open her chest, the hideousness serves no dramatic purpose. It’s just there as a sick kick, a hardcore moment of how-strong-is-your-stomach ”flamboyance.”
The director, South Korea’s Park Chanwook (Oldboy), specializes in such rabid moments of showpiece Guignol, and he also specializes in stringing them together in as haphazard and mangy a fashion as possible. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf and mute young man with hair dyed to look like green fiberglass, tries to fund his sister’s kidney transplant by kidnapping the daughter of his former boss (Song Kang-ho). The scheme goes haywire, and so does the movie, which is so busy shoving characters like Ryu’s shrill Marxist girlfriend (Bae Doona) into our faces that it barely bothers to establish how we should think or feel about them. Dirty Pretty Things (2003) used the British live-organ black market as the backdrop for a humanely terrifying vision of the underbelly of immigrant life, but Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so badly told that it ends up dissecting a corruption that exudes from nowhere but itself.