Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – Review
by Miguel Douglas on March 29, 2010
Unable to afford proper care for his sister dying from kidney failure, Ryu turns to the black market to sell his own organs only to end up cheated of his life savings. His girlfriend urges Ryu to kidnap the daughter of wealthy industrialist Dong-jin, who recently laid him off. Ryu agrees, but unforeseen tragedies turn an innocent con into a merciless quest for revenge. Bound by their personal losses and deep-seated anger, the two men are thrust into a spiral of destruction.
While presenting both an escalating tale of grueling vengeance and social classism, writer-director Park Chan-Wook’s first film in what would later be referred to as part of his “Revenge Trilogy”, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance presents the viewer a tale filled to the brim with brutal violence, unexpected irony, and dark humor all seemingly interwoven to create a distinctive and bleak cinematic experience. The film seemingly conveys a level of Shakespearean tragedy, in which the characters have neither the influence nor power to turn the course of events once they’ve been put into motion. It’s this profound sense of foresight that the viewer gains that ultimately provides the biggest shock—we are literally expecting the situation presented in the film to get worse—and it most certainly does. While all good people to begin with, they eventually have to forsake their own humanity in order to seek vengeance, with obviously devastating consequences. Blinded purely by their own retaliatory efforts, we are the eyes of reason during the film—which certainly allows us to see the damage before it even commences.
Quite the opposite of future films directed by Park, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is minimalistic in almost every aspect. From its vast and desolate landscapes, to its characters seemingly devoid of any emotional participation in the world they live in, the film’s bleakness stretches far and beyond to present the viewer with a similar sense of social isolation. It’s this detachment that I feel separates this film from other works by Park, especially his more commercially successful ones. The story is not entirely complicated when considering his two later films in the trilogy, with the latter being more intricate in weaving the past and present into their story lines. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance takes place as is, in the present, without the need for background or setup. The narrative is constructed in its most basic and primal fashion—to tell a tale of vengeance and its ramifications, regardless of the social or economical class of the one’s engaging in it.
But for all its worth, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance delivers a morbid tale without really much human investment. It’s brutally nihilistic in its portrayal of its characters, and it’s relentless in showcasing a disastrous example of cause and effect. Detached from any articulate examination of emotions and solely focusing on primal ones, the film soon delves into barbaric territory in relation to how the characters interact with one another. This ultimately works in the film’s favor, but does so at the expense of the characters themselves. Perhaps its best to speculate that Park is stating that vengeance leads nowhere but to more suffering and anguish, which Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance certainly deals out in abundance. There is no salvation to gain from destroying another in an act of pure rage, often at the cost of not fully understanding the situation in which the rage stemmed from in the first place. The treatment of the characters might alienate many viewers who easily get depressed, especially since Park pulls absolutely no punches in showing the violent and grotesque world that the film takes place in.
Considering this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a film that most viewers will find entirely too harsh. The visceral impact is highly amped up within the film, even more so as the paths of the characters begin to cross. While never one to shy away from showing such extremities within his works, Park knows when and how to utilize violence effectively. Since this is a tale of vengeful acts, it’s important to understand the lengths in which people will go to fulfill that desire. The entire latter half of the film is based around this sole premise, which definitely provides a sorrowful atmosphere towards it. There is no clearly defined line between good and evil expressed within the film—Ryu and Dong-jin both start out as relatively simple, likeable people—both who end up fighting—and killing—for something in which they both lost and can never gain back.
This doesn’t exactly help when the narrative of the film is not as easily laid out as one would hope. Certainly one can figure out what is going on if one is attentive, but the editing wasn’t exactly as a strong as it could have been. There were certain edits that sharply leaped from one moment to the next, never fully explaining what had happened prior. Of course, this might not affect some viewer’s ability to follow the story, but it doesn’t help to have the edits placed between some of the most critical parts of the film. The flow of the story—as in a majority of films—is key to relaying to the viewer what is happening, and the edits didn’t seem well implemented in accordance to doing just that. In watching Park’s later films in comparison, it seems that he hadn’t really established his style yet with this film, a style you would see more fully developed primarily in his subsequent films.
Overall, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a frightening film, mainly because it showcases the escalating and futile nature that is brought about when the act of vengeance is performed. There are no winners, only losers at the end of it all. With sparse direction by Park, powerful performances by the entire cast, and a minimalistic approach to its presentation, the film is equally as impressive as it is harrowing in conveying its message. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is definitely not an enjoyable film—and it’s probably one of those film’s many could stomach watching only once—but it does lay the foundation for a direction Park would utilize in his later films, and much more effectively at that. A disturbing and bleak cinematic excursion, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is one film that truly lives up to its own title.