This isn’t a revenge movie per se, but a dark, brutal exploration of fate and consequence from one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers. That filmmaker is Korea’s Chanwook Park, who’s created a deeply odd, and deeply personal, cinematic universe unique unto itself.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (BOKSUNEUN NAUI GEOT; 2002) was the second feature by Chanwook Park, and the first in his self-styled Vengeance Trilogy, following the blistering political drama JSA (2000). That film adequately demonstrated Park’s all-encompassing cinematic mastery, as well as his penchant for graphic violence. Both are in ample evidence in SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, which also represents a giant departure in its many quirky details and jigsaw-like narrative (taken even farther afield in Park’s latest film SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE, the last in the abovementioned trilogy). It was not a success financially and certainly not critically; the mainstream reviews that accompanied the film’s 2005 US release were particularly vicious. Reviewers were bothered, it seemed, by the narrative convolutions and extreme violence. It is without question a strange and often off-putting film, but those willing to grant it their full attention will be rewarded.
The deaf and dumb Ryu lives with his dying sister in a possibly incestuous relationship. Desperate to finance the kidney transplant necessary to save his sister’s life, he stupidly casts his lot with a shady band of black market organ sellers, handing over his life savings to them in an upper floor of an abandoned building. Hours later Ryu awakens to find the organ salesmen gone…and himself missing a kidney. Being an impulsive sort (and a moron) Ryu allows his girlfriend to talk him into kidnapping the young daughter of Dong-Jin, a wealthy industrialist who’s just laid Ryu off, to finance the transplant. Ryu snatches the little girl and sends a ransom note to her father; Dong-Jin follows through with the ransom, but just as the child is about to be handed over Ryu’s plans go haywire. He discovers his sister’s body in his bathtub, the victim of a suicide. He takes the girl with him to a river, alongside which Ryu covers his sister’s corpse with rocks…not realizing that the kid has fallen in the water!
Thus the girl drowns, and both Ryu and Dong-Jin decide to take revenge. Ryu tracks down the organ sellers who stole his kidney and fells them in hideously brutal fashion. Dong-Jin is more methodical; he embarks on an obsessive hunt for the man who kidnapped his daughter, and, though iron determination and a series of lucky coincidences, manages to locate the culprit. Dong-Jin begins his revenge by shocking to death Ryu’s girlfriend, ignoring her dying claim that she’s part of a terrorist organization that will come after him. Next Dong-Jin nabs Ryu himself, drags him to the river where the girl drowned and slashes his Achilles’ heels. Thus afflicted, Ryu bleeds to death and the film, it would seem, is complete. But not quite, as Dong-Jin is about to learn the hideous truth of that old saying about how the person who opts for revenge should dig two graves…
Those expecting a straightforward revenge thriller will be disappointed, if not totally outraged, as SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is as quirky and obsessive as nearly any art film you can think of. Chanwook Park, by his own admission, likes to include elements other directors wouldn’t, and leave things out they’d make it a point to keep in. This means an unnatural concentration on various incidental details, while many crucial plot points are left vague (such as how a pivotal character is shown bound and gagged in one scene and then walking around in the next). It also means the film is extremely self-conscious, which can make for a sometimes aggravating viewing experience. Park requires his viewers to do far more work deciphering his narrative than most of us are used to.
And then there’s the violence, of which there’s a fair amount. What makes it noteworthy is its impact: the brutality is never cathartic in any way, regardless of whether the recipient deserves it or not. That’s despite the fact that Park’s approach is actually fairly restrained, at least in comparison with the level of bloodletting in most revenge flicks. Park further demolishes revenge-movie clichés in the way he steadfastly refrains from providing clear-cut good or bad guys; the film’s protagonists are both conflicted individuals who commit many questionable acts. One American critic complained about the film’s shades-of-grey moral tone, claiming he never knew how he was “supposed to feel” about the characters. That, I believe, is the whole point.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (BOKSUNEUN NAUI GEOT)
CJ Entertainment Inc./Studio Box
Director: Chanwook Park
Producer: Lee Jae-Soon
Screenplay: Lee Moo-Young, Lee Jong-Yong, Park Ridame
Cinematography: Kim Byung-Il
Editing: Kim Sang-Beom
Cast: Song Kang-Ho, Shin Ha-Kyun, Bae Doo-Na, Lim Ji-Eun, Bo Bae-Han, Kim Se-Dong, Lee Dae-Yeon