Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

By Kim Hollis

August 19, 2005

Methinks this guy has been watching too much Survivor.

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After having seen this first entry in the Park Chan-wook Vengeance Trilogy, I'm a bit perplexed by some of the other reviews I've read. Some of them have complained that the movie is too graphically violent and nihilistic, but it's fairly tame in comparison to Oldboy, which was the second film in the series (but the first one to receive North American release). Others have called it boring and without flow or rhythm. I find myself in complete opposition to such comments.

The movie sets its frame in the first hour. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a young man who is both deaf and mute, and he cares deeply for his sweet sister (Ji-Eun Lim). She is gravely ill, and will die if she does not receive a kidney transplant very soon. Ryu's blood is no match for hers, but he does have a small nest egg that had been put away so that he might attend art school. When the doctors tell him that it will be a desperately long time before a match might be found, he takes matters into his own hands. After viewing a sign advertising "organs for sale", he makes a deal with a black market organization. Though he doesn't have quite enough money, they're willing to give him a kidney provided he agrees to give them his own in turn. The organization is even shadier than usual, however, and they take both Ryu's money and kidney but leave him with absolutely nothing. Even worse, Ryu learns almost immediately that a legitimate suitable donor has been found by the doctors. "It's a good thing that you have that 10 million won," one physician tells him.

When Ryu's girlfriend (Du-na Bae) learns that he has squandered the cash that might have been spent on helping his sister, she is angry with him. She's even more furious with "The Establishment", though, and hatches a plan that will both help them with their cash flow problem and punish those whose politics are less than savory to her. Ryu has recently been fired from a factory job, and the blame clearly lies at the feet of the owner, Park Don-jin (Kang-ho Song). Ryu and his girl plot to kidnap Park's beloved daughter, believing that they will set a standard that is different from other kidnappers, who leave their victims murdered.

Things go horribly wrong on a number of fronts, unfortunately. In the end, both Ryu and Park are left seeking their own bloody vengeance on the people who have wronged them. Once the revenge portion of the film sets forth in the second hour, the plot surrounding the two unfolds simultaneously. As Ryu makes a move, Park makes his own. The juxtaposition is quite brilliant, frankly.

In the first half of the film, the movie is primarily centered on Ryu's story. As his tale is revealed, director Park makes ingenious use of both sound and music to remind us that Ryu can neither hear nor speak. When the doctors talk to him, they yell loudly even though the raised tone of voice will obviously never make a difference one way or another. Shocking noises and soft sounds alike remind the viewer with every step that the world we inhabit is wholly different than that of our apparent protagonist.

An unexpected element in the film is its frequent usage of dark humor. While I found Oldboy to be primarily solemn and dark, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has plenty of funny moments, though the viewer is never allowed to forget that the movie's subject matter is far deeper. As such, the brief laughs are extremely uncomfortable, which I'm sure was an intentional technique on the director's part.

As far as the performances in the film go, they were almost uniformly stellar. Ha-kyun Shin's Ryu is so impassive and deliberate that it is quite possible to believe he is deaf in real-life. Du-na Bae's cute toughness is totally appropriate given her character's political workings. Bo-bae Han as the little girl who is the object of the kidnapping is completely charming and easy to love. Most impressive for me, though, was Kang-ho Song as Park. He's portrayed as a man who is clearly ambivalent about the position he has achieved and the treatment he must mete out for some of his own employees. Even more importantly, he is completely sympathetic when it comes time for him to carry out the justice that his character really deserves to have.

For those who are easily made queasy or abhor violence, the movie does have some very brutal scenes. They're brief, though, and fairly limited in scope. And by the same token, they're important in the sense that we need to understand exactly what kind of men the two primary characters are.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is very deliberately paced, and though I never found it slow, I can occasionally understand how some viewers might become confused. Customs and activities that are commonplace in Korea are unfamiliar to us, so comprehending all of the action in this regard can be difficult. Nonetheless, that's a very minor quibble for a film that is chilling, suspenseful, and marvelously shot and acted. There's even a bit of a surprise ending tacked on, even though that finale is actually hidden in plain sight. For my part, I enjoyed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance's Greek tragedy elements even more than those that took place in Oldboy, and am really anticipating the 2006 release of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the finale in the movie trio.



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