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There are times when I am very grateful for my position here at DVDActive. Having been with the site (almost) from day one, my taste in films has evolved to encompass a wider range than would have been possible without access to the review material we receive. For one thing, I almost certainly would not have explored Asian cinema, or at least not to the extent that I have. Starting with simple Hong Kong action flicks from Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, through Japanese shockers such as Battle Royale and Ichi the Killer, to the current ‘golden boys’ of Asian cinema, South Korea, it’s safe to say that many of my favourite films hail from the far east.

Chief among my favourite directors is South Korea’s Park Chan-wook, a man who I consider to have a flawless track record. Each of his films has been a triumph of style and substance, from his earlier works, such as JSA, all the way up to the recent Lady Vengeance. The first instalment in his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ recently received its US release courtesy of Tartan Video’s ‘Asia Extreme’ label. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is certainly deserving of that title, but is the DVD worthy of such a great film?

Tartan
Tartan Video


CJ Entertainment
CJ Entertainment


Feature


The story concerns Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun, JSA and Save the Green Planet), a deaf mute who, when not toiling away at a menial job in a steelworks, spends most of his time caring for his terminally ill sister. Unless a suitable kidney donor can be found his sister will surely die, but as Ryu himself is incompatible he decides to turn to the black market for help. He makes contact with a seedy mother and son(s) team of backstreet-butchers who agree to provide a healthy organ for his sister, in exchange for ten million won and one of his own kidneys. However, when he awakens from the surgery he finds himself alone in a disused warehouse, minus both his life savings and the kidney! To make matters worse, the hospital informs him that a compatible donor has been found and that all he needs to do to save his sister’s life is to come up with the money for the transplant—exactly ten million won!

With no legal avenues through which to obtain the money, a desperate Ryu turns to his activist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doo-na) who devises a plan to kidnap the daughter of wealthy industrialist Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-Ho, JSA and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Their plan is simple: hold the girl, Yoo-sun, hostage until her father pays a ransom of twenty six million won. In Yeong-mi’s words, this is just the ‘redistribution of wealth’. Things run smoothly until Ryu’s sister uncovers the plot, at which point a series of events are set into motion that lead to tragedy on all sides. To say any more would ruin the film for those that haven’t seen it, but suffice to say that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn't for the faint-hearted.

Tartan
Tartan Video


CJ Entertainment
CJ Entertainment


Video


Tartan presents Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen frame at approximately 2.35:1 (it's actually more like 2.27:1). I already own the Korean two-disc Special Edition of the film, which suffers from numerous image problems (mostly interlacing and compression artefacts), so I was very interested to see if Tartan could improve upon that particular release. It has to be said that I’m not a huge fan of Tartan UK’s insistence on delivering standards converted transfers for most of their ‘big name’ titles (with the notable exception of Park Chan-wook’s own Oldboy), but I was pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the US outfit.

For one thing, the transfer is progressively encoded, which instantly elevates it above both the Korean and UK releases in my book. Additionally, both colour rendition and contrast appear more accurate than the Korean release. I’ve included secondary screen caps so that you can get an idea of just how much better the image looks on the Tartan disc. In the third set of captures you can barely make out the pattern on Yoo-sun’s dress on the CJ Entertainment release, whereas the pattern is easy to see on the Tartan effort. You'll also notice that the blurry faces seen in the Korean captures are sharper and more defined on Tartan's release. There really is no contest between the two in terms of detail levels. Another plus point for Tartan is the lack of the unsightly compression artefacts that plague the Korean set. In fact, the only real negatives are a spot of edge enhancement and the occasional spec on the print, but even these flaws are negligible.

Tartan
Tartan Video


CJ Entertainment
CJ Entertainment


As is common when different distributors release their own versions of a particular film, some reframing of the image has occurred. This version is framed slightly higher than any previous transfer I’ve seen (I’m including the Korean, French and British releases), with less pictorial information to both the left and right. Compositionally it has more in common with the French release than any other, but things are not totally identical. The changes don’t really affect one’s enjoyment of the film, but there are a couple of scenes where the original composition is superior. However, it’s unlikely that you’d notice this without staring at screen captures, and we’re definitely not talking Back the to the Future style misframing here (where sight gags are ruined because of the alterations).

Audio


We’re treated to the original Korean soundtrack in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, along with a Dolby 2.0 Surround track for those without the necessary hardware for the multi-channel affairs. I chose to listen to the DTS track for reviewing purposes—although there didn’t appear to be huge differences between it and the Dolby track from the sampling I made—and I’m pleased to report that the audio transfer is every bit as impressive as the visual transfer.

The mix is surprisingly active for such a dialogue-heavy picture, with numerous ambient effects used to create an extremely immersive experience. Be it the hustle and bustle of the busy city streets (with accompanying multi-directional traffic), the sound of rainfall or the gentle breeze of a summer’s day, there’s always something going on. In fact, director Park uses sound to craft some very memorable sequences, which makes for one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. It’s worth noting, however, that there is very little music used throughout the film.

Tartan
Tartan Video


CJ Entertainment
CJ Entertainment


Many of the most memorable scenes deal with Ryu’s disability, transporting the listener into his world at key moments. During his first meeting at the hospital the heavy rainfall and patronising shouting of the doctor give way to the silence of Ryu’s world. This is an effect that is repeated time and again throughout the film, highlighting Ryu’s isolation from ‘normal society’. Another scene that impressed me greatly was the first trip to the factory where Ryu works. This lengthy sequence plays out with no dialogue and the constant cacophony of machinery, which serves to underline Ryu’s introvert personality and alienation from his co-workers.

I mentioned earlier that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a dialogue-heavy picture, well thankfully it comes across clearly and free from distortion. Subtitles are also very good, translating almost everything of importance with very few spelling or grammatical errors. One of the biggest problems with the Korean Special Edition was its failure to provide translations for the Korean text found throughout the film (such as Yeong-mi’s computer display and the note left by Ryu’s sister). I’m convinced that this contributed to some of the confusion I experienced when I first viewed the film, as everything was much clearer the second time around.

Extras


Tartan has assembled a modest selection of supplemental material for this release, with a commentary track from director Park Chan-wook and friend Ryoo Seung-wan (director of Crying Fist) leading the charge. Conducted in Korean (obviously) and subtitled in English, I was initially hesitant about the track. I’ve not had much experience with subtitled commentaries, and generally enjoy listening to such tracks on my mp3 player as I fall asleep. However, I did find this track very interesting to read and it cleared up a few of the confusions I had with certain plot elements (such as Ryu’s first name and why the kidnapping target spontaneously changed mid-scene). All-in-all it is a worthy effort and actually more enjoyable than a large number of the English-language commentaries I’ve heard.

Tartan
Tartan Video


CJ Entertainment
CJ Entertainment


Next up we have an early look at Lady Vengeance (the ‘Sympathy for’ has been dropped for the UK and US releases). This consists of a few minutes of footage from the film, which should be enough to whet the appetite of most viewers. The Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance theatrical trailer is also included, along with a number of trailers for other Tartan Asia Extreme releases. The DVD sleeve promises a behind the scenes documentary, but unfortunately it’s nowhere to be seen, so the bonus material is rounded off with a photo gallery. Hardly an inspiring collection of supplements, but at least the commentary is entertaining.

Overall


Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a solid film. It doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of its successors, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but I found it to be a very powerful piece of cinema. However, the way in which the picture is structured and edited does make things a little hard to follow at times, particularly with regard to how certain plot points relating to the kidnapping go unexplained. Of course this could have as much to do with the limitations of subtitling as anything else. Even though I consider it to be the least of Park’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is still a visually striking piece of cinema with a lot more to offer than your typical revenge movie.

From a purely technical point of view this is a very competent release from Tartan, with perhaps the finest visual transfer of any region and a strong audio presence from both Dolby and DTS. Clearly it’s not the region of choice for fans of bonus material—so if it’s oodles of extras you’re after you’d do well to look at the UK region two release—but if you’re simply after the best audio-visual presentation of a great film, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up. As the saying goes, it’s highly recommended.


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