As I continue to venture through my book on New Korean Cinema, I am becoming completely enthralled with the complexities of their national cinema, as well as being enamored with the films release in the country within the last decade. The work of Chan-wook Park certainly stands far above not only many of his Korean contemporaries, but well above other working directors as well. Park, most well known for Old Boy, is a director who completely understands how to merge artistic expression with viewer demands into films that excel both in their message and delivery, never at any point sacrificing either side to assure the fluidity of the other. His film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a lesser known film within Park's trilogy that includes Old Boy is something to cherish. It is a film that makes no amends to assuring understandability to foreign viewers, yet the philosophical issues raised within the film are so universal that whispered dialogue and absurdist endings do little to delineate its commentary. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is a poetic study of anger, violence and retribution that is done so with a soft palette, experimental angles and just enough cohesion to provide a unique and lasting viewing experience. I am starting to understand why Korean cinema is becoming more viewed and studied on a global scale, because it is clearly the source for some of the most profound cinema of the past decade.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is, like the previously discussed Tell Me Something, a film about crime, deceit and the psychological effects of such engagements. However, unlike the latter, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance approaches desires for revenge as they manifest themselves through a handful of characters. The first, and perhaps most notable character within the film is the deaf factory worker named Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) who is simply trying to accrue enough money to kidney transplant for his dying sister. In a twist of bad luck, Ryu is laid off from work and left without a reliable source to pay for his sister's operation. Discovering an advertisement for organ selling, the deaf Ryu makes plans to swap his kidney for that of a positive match to his sister. Despite the disagreements of his lover, and faux-revolutionary, Yeong-Mi (Doona Bae) Ryu decides to go through with the operation. Meeting at a sleasy abandoned parking garage, Ryu in part confusion and part lack of hearing is taken advantage of and left naked and lacking one kidney on the top floor of the garage. Enraged and embarrassed, Ryu returns to Yeong-Mi and the two hash a plan to kidnap the daughter of one of the CEO's of Ryu's former company. Agreeing to be kind to the girl, the two enact the murder and plan to use the money earned to solidify that Ryu's sister receives her operation. However, as is usually the case, the kidnapping goes awry and Ryu fails to hear the kidnapped girl drowning behind him. Furthermore, Ryu's sister discovers a sheet explaining his plans to abduct a child in the name of saving her, which leads her to commit suicide in shame. At this point in the story, the now dead girl's father and Ryu become bent on revenge. Ryu angry at the people who took his kidney and the CEO upset at Ryu for what he assumes to be an intentional murder. After killing the organ theives, Ryu's path crosses with the CEO who has already killed Yeong-Mi in an attempt to find Ryu. The CEO then takes Ryu to the place where his daughter died and slits his achilles tendons leaving the deaf Ryu to die an agonizing death. When the films seems all but over a group of thugs drive up in a car and kill the CEO claiming that they are doing so to avenge the death of Yeong-Mi who was the leader of the revolutionary organization which had up until this point seemed to be fake. All acts of revenge settled, the film closes with nobody victorious and a larger amount of bloodshed than any person had imagined.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, like the other works of Park delves heavily into the questioning of the validity and rationality of revenge. The character of Ryu throughout most of the film is simply attempting to assure the comfort of his sister, and even when being unjustifiably removed from work lacks a desire to act violently against those who did wrong by him. It is clearly suggested that Ryu should find most of his rage through his termination from the steel company, yet he fails to do so and instead acts illogically and attempts to make a deal with shady criminals. Even after the initial robbery of his kidney, Ryu fails to feel vengeful against the group and instead attempts to act irrationally to save his sister. It is not until his sister takes her own life that he becomes enraged and finally lashes out against the criminals, killing them all with little compassion or emotional cognizance. His act of vengeance proves to be his downfall as he is eventually killed by the CEO, who believes him to be a ruthless murderer, a fact that was not true for most of the film. Similarly, the CEO finds his anger directed at Ryu and enacts much of it upon Yeong-Mi who is arguably innocent in the death of his daughter. Again, it is his unrestrained murder of multiple individuals that lead to his death despite it being clear that he is acting vengeful for nothing more than an unfortunate accident. The film drives the CEO's place in the entire affair home by suggesting that he was foolish enough to believe that he had no enemies, despite being inextricably tied to a company that laid individuals off with little thought for their futures. The film ultimately ties a group of people together who assume themselves to be living separate lives of little concern with the world, but as it becomes clear within the narrative, an act of wrongdoing often has many culprits and always has many victims.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a stunning film that is cinematically sound. Although I have yet to view Lady Vengeance, I am sure it is a great film making the Park's bluray boxset of The Vengeance Trilogy a must own. Although Park has not made a film in a few years, I strongly suggest keeping an eye out for his name, because his next work is sure to amaze.