Movie Review: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

2002. Directed by Chan-wook Park. Starring Kang-ho Song.

American movie portrayals of “vengeance” are crowd-pleasers. Mel Gibson has practically adopted the motivation as a screen persona. Vengeance as a plot device kept Charles Bronson employed for many uninspired years. Picture Harrison Ford in almost any movie in the past decade-and-a-half and he’s probably yelling, “Give me back my daughter!” or “I want to know what happened to my wife!” while the veins in his neck threaten to secede.

The Korean director, Chan-wook Park, has explored vengeance in a trio of movies — Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and, in the first of these, Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance. Vengeance in Korea seems to be served slowly boiling, bitterly seasoned and with excruciating violence.

The plot is not a simple one: Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf and mute factor worker with a dying sister, who desperately needs a kidney transplant. He turns to the black market and not only loses his money, but one of his own kidneys. With his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae), he decides to kidnap the daughter of the factory owner (Kang-ho Song) to raise the transplant money. His girlfriend suggests that it would be “fun” for the child and, because they wouldn’t ask for much money from a rich man, it would level off the unfairness of society just a bit.

Plans often go awry in vengeance movies. When the kidnapped child accidently drowns, the factory owner exacts intense and almost wordless justice on the plotters. What follows is — and it’s worth being prepared for it — suicide, murder by baseball bat and scalpel, torture, dismemberment and sweet poetic justice. And a dark surprise at the end.

Instead of the roaring lines familiar to fans of Harrison Ford movie trailers, the director uses haunting and beautiful imagery to increase the impact: Ryu hitchhiking along a highway in the early daylight, naked and scarred from his kidney transaction; the kidnapped child’s orange dress floating in the river; the bleak and grimy factory whose noise is invisible to the deaf Ryu; even the scenes of violence, often shot with a comfortable measure of distance or blocked perspective.

I’m haunted by this movie’s slow, relentless build. I woke up through the following night, thinking about the twists and turns of the plot, how good turned to bad and back again, everyone cheating and being cheated, and how violence was met with deserved violence somewhere down the road. What proves to be especially challenging for western viewers isn’t the violence — although that is pretty graphic — but the measured pace of this film and others like it (like the excellent Memories of Murder, also starring Kang-ho Song) that do not build to a predictably frantic conclusion.

This Korean meditation on personal justice isn’t all that different from its American counterparts — the fury of an anguished father translates well — but I think it better demonstrates that the pursuit of vengeance doesn’t end with anyone’s clean hands. Achieving vengeance may require destroying everyone, including yourself.

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