Guest reviewer: Caballero Oscura
Korean director Chan-Wook Park gained some acclaim in the US earlier this year with the theatrical release of his revenge masterpiece, Oldboy, which represented the middle act of his revenge trilogy. Now US audiences are finally being treated to the opening act of the trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. It’s interesting to note that Park made this unsettling, challenging film shortly after completing one of the biggest mainstream box office hits in Korean cinema history, JSA. He had the opportunity to continue churning out blockbusters, but chose to step back and focus on a much smaller, personal project with limited box office appeal. Thankfully, the move paid off handsomely for both this film and Oldboy, resulting in some of the best current filmmaking in the world.
In a landscape of damaged individuals, the lead character Ryu has the deck completely stacked against him. He’s deaf and mute, he’s partially mentally handicapped, he’s just been laid off from his job, and his only sister is dying waiting for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, his bloodtype isn’t compatible with his sister’s, but he has managed to save up enough money for transplant surgery as soon as a suitable donor is located. The only problem is that his sister is almost out of time. Taking matters into his own hands, he unwisely hooks up with a shady underground organ “sourcing” operation that promises to supply him with a compatible kidney…provided he gives up one of his own as well as all the transplant money he’s saved. Not surprisingly, the transaction doesn’t exactly work out as he hoped, setting off a string of crime and retribution that eventually sucks everyone associated with him, most significantly his old boss, directly into an expanding vortex of revenge.
Although “Mr. Vengeance” from the title ultimately refers to Ryu’s boss, Ryu is the primary focus of the first half of the film and is a completely believable character due to the quirky performance of Ha-Kyun Shin. The only drawback is that he played a similarly disturbed part in Save the Green Planet, which proves a bit distracting at times. Even better in his role as Ryu’s ex-boss is Kang-Ho Song, the central character in the final half of the film. He invests the role with a quiet and heartbreaking intensity as he carries out his unwanted mission of vengeance.
Thematically, the movie can be viewed as a class struggle, a fight for the sanctity of the family unit, or simply a case study of a challenged young man. At its core though, it strips away all differences between its characters to focus on the idea that they are all equals in their base animalistic quest for revenge.
It’s abundantly clear that Chan-Wook Park loves the art of film. He peppers his films with unique camera angles, extremely atmospheric cinematography, and stellar pacing to enhance the final project, dancing close to overwhelming the viewers with his flourishes but ultimately delivering stunning imagery and structure that prove he’s completely in control of every aspect. While JSA hit the broad audience targets necessary for big ticket sales and Oldboy pounded viewers with a kinetic thrillride from beginning to end, Sympathy revels in the pauses between action, the quiet moments that happen between characters when nothing’s really happening. That’s not to say the movie bogs down at all, it’s just a stylistic choice that emphasizes Ryu’s silent world. There are a few minor gaps and odd jumps in the narrative as well, leaving viewers with some holes to fill in on their own. But when the action resumes, those with weak dispositions should be on the alert as much of the revenge is quite inventive, especially as the film enters its final, horrifying act.