Park Chan-wook, 2002
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, Ji-Eun Lim
Korea’s Park Chan-wook has had a cinematic career primarily steeped in horror. His Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance come directly from a shock-horror-exploitation tradition, as well as Cut, his segment for the Three...Extremes Asian horror anthology, Thirst, his vampire film from 2009, and Stoker, his upcoming film said to be influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hitchcock’s domestic serial killer drama Shadow of a Doubt.
Park's three revenge films are widely different in visual style, but share similar thematic concerns and philosophical issues. All of these films deal with intense, painful relationships between parents and children, as well as siblings. This marks them as domestic revenge films, one of the most popular themes in the larger revenge genre. Park's trilogy questions the purpose of violence and vengeance and speculates what comes after. Confession, atonement and forgiveness are also themes of increasing importance, culminating in Lady Vengeance.
And though Park’s trilogy wanders somewhere between Korean/East Asian horror and Western revenge cinema, it also borrows liberally from English Renaissance drama, namely the Jacobean revenge tragedy made most famous by works like Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Common characteristics include murder mysteries, intricate plotting, descents into madness, exaggerated, almost comic violence, ghosts, and the wholesale destruction of most of the characters. These types of plays also exhibit a certain rationalism and emotional detachment in the heroes, who are determined to follow through with cold, calculated revenge until the bitter end, even if it means sacrificing their own lives. Revenge tragedies also explore the consequences of political power, absolutism and corruption, which is particularly relevant in South Korea cinema due to the aftermath of a despotic government in the ‘80s and difficulties maintaining peace with North Korea.
Boksuneun Naui Geot aka Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance directly translates to Vengeance is Mine, a more fitting title considering that sympathy falls short in this bleak, isolating film. A deaf-mute, Ryu, cares for his terminally ill sister, who is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately he gets laid off, panics, and uses the severance pay and one of his own kidneys to make a black market trade for an organ compatible with his sister’s blood type. After his surgery, the organ dealers disappear and soon the hospital tells him they have found a match if he still has the money. His girlfriend, Yeong-mi, comes up with a plan to kidnap his ex-boss’s young daughter for ransom money. Everything goes well until Ryu’s sister discovers what he has done and kills herself. When the grief-stricken Ryu takes the little girl along to bury his sister, she accidentally drowns.
Dong-jin, the girl’s father, is consumed by grief and plans revenge. He finds Yeong-mi and tortures her to death, despite her warning that she is part of an anarchistic terrorist group who will seek retribution. Ryu, meanwhile, has found and murdered the family of organ dealers. When he learns of Yeong-mi’s death, he swears revenge on Dong-jin, who has been waiting for Ryu at his apartment. He overpowers Ryu and takes him to the river where his daughter died, violently drowning him. While burying the body, Dong-jin is stabbed to death by a group of mysterious revolutionaries.
Successful in the Korean box office, Sympathy garnered some worldwide attention from Oldboy's later fame, but should be regarded as a near-masterpiece in its own right. Much of the film’s strength lies with its impressive visual style and Park’s strict attention to detail. There is some coldly perfect cinematography by Kim Byeong-il, despite the fact that the film is bright and beautiful with resonating green tones. The sound design is also impressive, with a careful mixture of silence, dialogue, sign language, written notes and intertitles, as well as a sparsely used jazz score. The closing credits are particularly chilling, as we fade out on Dong-jin gurgling and choking on his own blood.
Sympathy is not a very accessible film because it is glacially paced and centers around deeply isolated characters, a theme that runs through the trilogy as a whole. In the first half of the film many of the dramatic moments and emotional reactions are not shown on screen. Park uses some great, incongruous cuts to achieve this, which work to disorient the viewer and disrupt the pacing and tension, but with purpose and control. The inability of the characters to interact or communicate with one another is established visually by Park’s insistence on bisecting shots and oddly framed scenes. On the surface level, the story is fraught with difficulties and plot holes and is almost absurdly complex, but this seems to be intentional. Park's film is about the pointless nature of revenge, about the impotence of rage and the frustration of alienation.
It is a staunchly pessimistic film, but is also full of a charming sort of irony. While it can’t accurately be described as a black comedy, it is packed full of quick moments of irony and absurdism that give it additional depth. Sympathy's only real weakness is its sprawling, convoluted plot, made more confusing by the frequent jump cuts. Many of the events don’t make a whole lot of sense, but all of these acts lead to a spiraling path of violence and murder. Most of the violence is implied, but there is a level of brutality that leaves most viewers certain they’ve seen more than has actually been shown.
Sympathy is a cold, aloof, emotionally void exercise in the purpose and execution of vengeance. Park refuses to provide a moral compass and strips away the catharsis usually implicit in genre films. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are sympathetic, but we are ultimately unable to empathize with either. Despite his later explorations in confession and absolution, the only possible outcome in Sympathy is the finalizing silence of death. With his next film, Oldboy, he graduates to the question of what comes after revenge and whether or not identity and emotion can be rehabilitated.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance comes highly recommended for fans of revenge films and/or Korean horror. It is available on DVD in a basic edition from Tartan Video.