Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2002, 121 minutes, starring Du-na Bae, Kang-ho Song and Ha-kyun Shin
Two summers ago, when I wrote my review of Oldboy, I wrote it in the full knowledge that it was the second part of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. I hadn't at that stage seen Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, and of course Sympathy for Lady Vengeance had yet to see the light of day. The problem I had with Oldboy, and for which I've taken considerable flak since, was that while it was undoubtedly stylish, it was a victim of style over substance. Bearing in mind the sort of site Snowblood Apple is, and the sort of films we review, it seemed fair at the time (and still does now) to place it within its context, to ask the very pertinent question which no-one else at the time answered, which was, just how well does it fit within its genre and was the massive contemporary hype for it thoroughly justified? The conclusion I came to then, and which I stand by now, is that it offered nothing new to a viewer of the types of movies reviewed on this site.
It was with slight trepidation then that I approached Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. It's an enigmatic film, for sure – how can it not be when one of its two main leads is a deaf mute? Yet Mr Vengeance offers what Oldboy patently did not – rather than relying on flashy visuals, there's real meat on the bones of this one. Ostensibly the story of a bungled kidnapping which drives a thirst for revenge, Park Chan-wook expertly twists the (forgive me here for a moment) sympathies of the viewer towards various individuals over the course of the film, and equally skilfully twists them back again, time after time. This isn't a movie about a kidnapping, though, it's much more than that: it's a movie about people, about extreme circumstances, desperation (of all sorts), politics, money.
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is not, by any means, an easy movie to follow. In places it's a bit like reading an eighteenth century novel, in that massively important plot points are buried in short pieces of dialogue – blink and, literally, you'll miss them. As such, you'll need to go back and forth through the film at some stage or another just to be able to work out what just happened (and, more to the point, why? I get the feeling though this is deliberate on the part of Park, and that the obfuscation of the plot is meant to leave you just as reeling and confused as some of the protagonists).
Anyway, Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a deaf-mute who works in a metal smelting works and who lives with his revolutionary girlfriend (and adept signer) Cha (former model Du-na Bae, last seen as Eun-Suh in The Ring Virus), is a desperate man. His sister desperately needs a kidney transplant, but there's no donor available – he just has to wait. Looking after his sister has taken its toll – he's working double shifts to pay for her care but his absence rate is sky-high. Finally, his bosses have no other choice but to fire him.
His desperation now at fever-pitch, when he sees an "organs for sale" sticker in a public toilet (of all places), he grabs the opportunity and makes an appointment to see the black-market organ vendors. Here's the deal: as you've only got 10 million won (about US$10,000) in savings, give us that and one of your own kidneys, and we'll arrange for a kidney for your sister. Reluctantly, he agrees, and wakes up naked in the derelict office block the crooks have been using, minus one kidney, minus ten million, and minus any sign of the gang... he's been had.
Back at the hospital, a miracle has happened: a donor has been found for his sister and ten million, he's told, will easily pay for the cost of her care. What's left of his world collapses around him. Forced to come up with an alternative, Cha suggests a "moral" kidnapping – seizing the daughter of his former boss Park (a stoic Kang-ho Song), who's filthy rich and who won't even miss the 26 million they're going to ask for her return. Why, she says, it'll even serve to bring the family closer together. And, after seeing a laid-off worker called Peng attempt suicide in front of Park, begging for his job back after he was fired for his 0.008% of his work being faulty, what was a vague notion now becomes more concrete.
Now quite how the pair seize Yoo-sun and also involve Ryu's sister without telling her what's going on is left rather vague by the Hong Kong Edko Films DVD we used as our review copy – perhaps on other releases it's clearer. That said, what is clear is that Park agrees to the ransom, and delivers it to Ryu, who has bonded rather well with the little girl. As he returns from the drop-off point, he plays with her, before she hands him a note from his sister... who he finds dead, suicide, in the bath.
The natural burial point for her is by the side of a river that they used to play by as children. Burying her in stones on the riverbank, he leaves Yoo-sun in the car. She's harassed by a guy with cerebral palsy who tries to steal her necklace – escaping from the car she tries, in vain, to attract Ryu's attention whose back is facing her. And when she falls into the river, he still fails to hear her screams as she drowns.
And it's here that the movie shifts from Ryu and Cha to Park, and his quest for justice, vengeance. As the police investigation monumentally fails, he's driven to searching for the perpetrators himself to deliver his own brand of retribution. And Ryu, too, is looking for revenge on the organ dealers. Meantime the cops are still on the case looking to complete the case in a more conventional manner...
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is deliberately morally ambiguous, and as I've said already the viewer's sympathies for Park and Ryu swing round frequently, most notably at the point where Yoo-sun dies (though, frankly, there is still some sympathy for Ryu as the whole episode was a tragic accident) but nevertheless at different points during the rest of the movie. One minute you're rooting for Park (not least in a scene where he witnesses his own daughter's autopsy: despite the fact that the camera doesn't waver from his face, it's the most agonising sequence I've seen in many years), the next you're back on Ryu's side as he desperately tries to piece together what's left of his life.
Park Chan-wook, it's reported, was given, after the success of Joint Security Area, free rein to make whatever movie he wished, and this was the result. And, while it's clear that there was a limited budget, it's difficult to find fault with Mr Vengeance. It's obvious Park is a talented director, and has an expert cinematographic eye. Indeed, in many ways in Mr Vengeance he rivals Kim Ki-duk for the use of the camera and his broad vistas. Where Park surpasses his countryman though is that his characters are in no sense morally vacuous. Each of them has been royally shafted by life, all are in one sense or another victims. While your sympathies for Ryu might be morally ambiguous – he is, after all, a kidnapper and child killer, albeit an accidental one – so they are too for Park, who's seen his daughter murdered (in his eyes – he never seems to find the truth that the whole thing was a sorry accident) and whose quest for revenge over and above the law is understandable, even defendable. In many ways, the only "clean" quest for vengeance is that of Ryu going after the organ vendors. And still, with the movie's final act of revenge, it's clear that Park Chan-wook is showing us that the circle of violence will never end, that there will always be wrongs to be righted.
Magnificently acted and directed, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is a thought-provoking (and sometimes stomach-churning) examination of what makes the human psyche tick. It's so unflashy as to be refreshing, almost anti-stylish, and you can't help but think that had the director taken that path for Oldboy, it would have been an awful lot better than it was. In its own low-key way, Mr Vengeance shows how easy it would be to slip into an underworld of violence, despair, alienation, and a never-ending circle of reprisals. Essential.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Sex: 3/10. It's the thought of shagging the Korean Sadako, you see, that brings down the score
Confusion: 7/10. Keep that rewind button close
Gore: more than you might expect
Kidneys: 2 dodgy, -1 (nicked), -1 (dead) = NO kidneys
26 million won: less than you might expect
Films in a Similar Style: Oldboy
*** Essential ***
(filmographic note: we just can't recommend the Edko Films Hong Kong DVD we mentioned in the main part of the review. Despite having price in its favour, not only are crucial parts seemingly subtitled badly, but it's also cropped the original 2.35:1 ratio down to 16:9 - pretty unforgivable)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
A quick Google search will give you a gazillion sites: here are our favourites. Try moviereviewindex.com for more too.
http://www.metrofilms.com/sympathy/ - official US site
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Sympathy_for_Mr_p__Vengeance.php - The Korean Movie Database, excellent as ever with press shots and news items
http://www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2676483 - short clips and the trailer
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=56506 - DVD Times give the Tartan disc a once-over
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/sympathyvengeance/sympathyvengeance.html - KFCC give it a review too