Why I Love… #69: Sympathy For Mr Vengeance


Year: 2002

Director: Park Chan-Wook

Stars: Song Kang-Ho (Park Dong-Jin), Shin Ha-Kyun (Ryu), Doona Bae (Cha Yeong-Mi), Lim Ji-Eun (Ryu’s Sister), Han Bo-Bae (Yu-Sun)

Genre: Crime Thriller

In 2002, The Coen Brothers released one of their least loved films; a screwball romantic comedy starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones called Intolerable Cruelty. The film itself proved largely forgettable, yet it’s title, I’ve always felt, had been applied to the wrong movie. It seems far more suitable as an alternative moniker for Sympathy For Mr Vengeance.

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance winds in relentlessly, painfully, tightening up on it’s doomed cast of characters with every revolution. Coiling in. Trapping all. It’s an incredibly mean-spirited film, and the perfect opening salvo to Park Chan-Wook’s (largely) superb vengeance trilogy. Oldboy might get the lion’s share of the praise, but Sympathy For Mr Vengeance is not to be taken for granted.

It begins, suitably, with a blurred image slowly coming into definition. Time, we immediately sense, will reveal all, but too late for the poor souls caught in this vortex. The film tells the story of green-haired factory worker Ryu. Both deaf and dumb, he is trying desperately to save his sister’s life. She needs a kidney transplant in order to survive, but he isn’t a viable donor. Despite his best intentions the doctor says he can’t help her.

He concocts a dubious scheme with a shady group who deal organs on the black market; in exchange for his kidney, they’ll provide one that will suit his sister. Of course, it’s a scam, and Ryu is left naked and confused and broke. It is the film’s callous nature that a legitimate donor becomes available the next day. It’s too late; the money is gone.

Fortunately, his anti-capitalist girlfriend Cha has a plan; kidnap the daughter of a wealthy business man, and use the ransom money to pay for the surgery. Ryu, already proven an easy mark, is quickly convinced by Cha’s scheme. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Inevitability seeps from every pore of the film. A cleaner scraping a flyer from a bathroom wall immediately has her work undone by men who slap many more flyers in its place. Why try, the film suggests, when the laws of averages are stacked against you? Those who dare are the deluded, the daydreamers, the doomed. Chan-Wook paints a singularly jaded view of the world, then revels in its cruelties with unmasked glee.

His smirking grin is everywhere. Case in point, a scene near the top of the picture, in which a group of horny young men press their ears to the thin apartment wall, masturbating to the moans of an unseen woman who they believe is in the throws of passion. The reality, Chan-Wook shows us, is that it is Ryu’s sister, moaning in pain. The further sadistic horror is that Ryu is blissfully unaware of her suffering; he is positioned in the foreground, oblivious to her cries, lost in the pleasure of some tasty noodles. It takes a particularly craven perspective to enjoy such schadenfraude, but Chan-Wook positively encourages it.

There is sweetness here, albeit fleeting. The little girl is undeniably happy in Ryu’s presence – the scene in which she rests on his arched knees to watch television is briefly adorable – but even this is painfully undercut by one of the film’s most heartbreaking reveals. This swerve from sweet to sour only continues to serve Chan-Wook’s purpose, however; preparing the viewer for the worst, coldly advising us that he won’t shy away from dark places, that more than examining how cruel vengeance is, Sympathy is a perverse comedy in which the old saying “can go wrong, will go wrong” is mercilessly exploited.

Make no mistake, Chan-Wook’s approach tells us, you’re to be put through the ringer.

…Talking about this movie is becoming hard without revealing major plot points. So we’re going to have to agree on something here. You’re now officially on notice. From here out, spoilers loom large. Like, right away, stop reading, unless you’ve seen the film, or else skip to the end bit. Got it? Good.

The film’s most startling sequence, the one that lingers longest in the mind, comes when Ryu takes his sister out to be buried by the lake. The maddening intervention by a handicapped man… an act of theft… a poor memory… and the utterly, utterly chilling sight of the little girl doubling the film’s body count. These events and images are seared into the viewer in a near-wordless 10 minutes of film, in which Chan-Wook’s visual acuity is master of all.

The swirling, maverick camerawork that cast such a dynamic spell over Oldboy is not nearly as evident here, yet Chan-Wook was already proving himself as a master visual stylist. Sympathy excels not on pyrotechnic camera moves, but with its often rigid, judicious compositions. Here fixed shots impress, as a film with a very deliberate colour scheme is presented by an exacting eye. The story comes first, yet the method of its communication is always, always impressive. The result is a thriller that engrosses as much for its unyielding narrative as for its rich aesthetics.

The tragedy at the lake instigates the second half of the picture, as grieving businessman Park Dong-Jin seeks vengeance for the wrong committed against him. At the outset appearing to be a peripheral character, he moves to the foreground, playing weary private eye, closing in on Ryu and Cha in a series of methodical steps. But in doing so he only draws himself further into this vortex of misfortune.

It is a sad irony that he tortures Cha, representing the business world as he does. Only a few short scenes earlier she was handing out anti-corporate propaganda. Her trickledown idealism, which for the most part seemed like hipster posturing, ultimately defines her fate; snubbed out of existence by The Man. Again, Chan-Wook suggests a worrying social irrelevancy.

It’s curious that names are rarely used in Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. Chan-Wook relies on his actors’ performances as well as their uniform-like costuming and make-up choices to distinguish themselves. But why rely on such things? Could their very anonymity have a point of its own? That these hapless individuals and their intertwining lives are insignificant cogs in a far greater machine? A microscopic element of a far greater spiral? If the director could pull out to encompass all of Korea, all of Asia, all of the planet, might he not find us all working our way, inevitably, toward some great elaborate end? And who wins in this grand plan? Certainly not society’s more anonymous members…

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance contains many horrors and some bloodletting not for the squeamish. But it’s most sinister trait is the suggestion that we might all be part of some enormous Rube Goldberg device, our ears closed to the warnings all around us that might help us change our fate.


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