Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Year 2002

Kang-ho Song   as  Park Dong-jin
Ha-kyun Shin as Ryu
Doona Bae as Cha Yeong-mi
Ji-Eun Lim as Ryu's Sister
Bo-bae Han as Yu-sun
Director - Chan-wook Park  
Screenwriters - Chan-wook Park
  - Jae-sun Lee
  - Jong-yong Lee
  - Mu-yeong Lee

Based on the title, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, somebody somewhere is supposed to have sympathy for a guy named Vengeance. There is no single person or group of people that are even symbolically Mr. Vengeance. I guess it's a state of mind or an embodied spirit that everyone is susceptible to. And when a person becomes Mr. Vengeance, according to the title, you can sympathasize with him or her. I couldn't.

I guess it's like having sympathy for the devil. There is no sympathy for the devil. There is no Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Any time Mr. V enters the picture, humanity leaves through the border.

In trying to compare this to another movie, the best I could come with is V for Vendetta. Both movies have an unjustifiably rabid fan base. Both movies have some decent scenes and make good points, but neither holds together. In V for Vendetta there's more psychological introspection for shock effect than for unmasking (Guy Fauks? Mask? Nevermind) any political point of view. With Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, it's all about the visual creativity rather than the building of pathos.

This is a South Korean movie with subtitles, just so you know. Also, this is a male-centric film. Women are extensions of the men, so you won't get names for all of the characters. Ryu, a deaf mute and a touch slow on the uptake, is one of male leads. His sister is never named. She is just "Ryu's sister".

First the method of story telling. Because the movie is a series of snippets strung together to tell a bigger story, it does not mean that the earlier snippet played out to the point where you can bridge the gap between what happened then and what is happening now. You've got to fill in a lot of blanks by yourself when you can.

Next the plot. Ryu's sister needs a kidney transplant. She's not going to make it long without one. A deal with a black market purveyor in body parts is the best way to go, Ryu thinks. This unlawful pact begins the downward spiral of events for all characters. When the deal with the black market falls through, Ryu's left with fewer options than ever. His next option requires lots of money and Ryu resorts to kidnapping. The ransom pay-off should have gone without a hitch, but it doesn't and what should have been an equitable resolution turns morbid. Then Mr. Vengeance takes possession of each character and they respond to his touch in their own personally destructive ways.

As to what's good about the movie, the concept is interesting. Within all of us is the need for retribution just waiting for the right trigger before it explodes. When it does we become possessed with an overwhelming need for revenge. For the person experiencing this, it is justified. No amount of pain inflicted on others reaches the subsumed human part of a person once Mr. Vengeance takes over. Mr. Vengeance turns a sane individual into a psychotic sociopath. That last part is in the movie when decribing Ryu's escapade.

Every character in the movie gets a visit from Mr. Vengeance, Ryu's sister, Park Dong-jin (Ryu's ex-boss and father of the kidnapping victim), Ryu, and Cha Yeong-mi (Ryu's girlfriend) Each responds differently.

Are these responses credible? Not really. I can't say what each does without introducing spoilers. If you want details, click this link -> spoilers

I see where this gets rave reviews elsewhere. I'm willing to bet that the reviews are done by director Chan-wook Park fanboys who saw this movie after seeing Oldboy. Their objectivity is, shall we say, occluded? If this were Park's first movie, I'd say there's lots of potential. But this is his fourth movie and it seems like a school project rather than a piece of polished professionalism.

Park's trademark is scenes that stick with you. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has those. The first scene between Ryu and his sister as they lie in bed together (no, they're clothed and their love is brother and sister love) and talk to each other uses the back of a mirror to provide the audience's point of view. Not only is the arrangement of furniture noteworthy but the symbolism of their unspoken communications through their reflected images is apparent.

Ryu's workday is filled with wonderful images and personal interpretations. Director Park finds nearly surreal beauty in some unlikely places. Later, the way Park Dong-jin tries to find out Ryu's location by interrogating Ryu's girlfriend is memorable as well. Park Dong-jin's final revenge is unnerving.

Director Park puts a lot of care into crafting how each scene should look. Then he languidly allows actions to take place in his creation. These are the strengths of the film. Like Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance does not rush any individual scene.

Sometimes Park should hurry it up already. And he should apply that same deliberate pacing to the whole movie. I guess I've moved onto the bad.

For ten minutes, Park shows what Ryu does for a living. About a half an hour later, the audience finds out that Ryu lost his job. When did that happen? Why did we see so much of Ryu's work then? Because it looked cool? Sometimes you've got to leave things out of your work no matter how much you like them. I don't know how many carefully worded paragraphs I've had to discard over the years. I liked what I'd written and wanted to keep it in, but it added nothing and spoiled the pace.

Park learned his lesson for Oldboy but he had not yet learned it for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

Another thing is that it's good to let the narrative and action provide the disclosure and back story. But it's quite another to prevent the audience from knowing what's going on. That Ryu is a deaf mute is disclosed through his daily activities. But his lost job? It's kind of thrown into the mix after you should know the character's motivation for doing what he did. That he lived with his sister was sort of dumped out there as an afterthought near the end of the movie. That's something you really needed to know early on. Ryo has relationss with two actresses, Ji-Eun Lim and Doona Bae. They aren't exactly identical twins, but they're similar enough looking that they're not easily to tell apart. When Ryu is seen in bed with both of them and the director hasn't explained their relationships, you don't know what's going on.

Think of it this way. If you'd never seen Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg before and you decided to watch The Departed, how long would it be before you saw them as two distinct individuals and then could identify them seperately? (When I watch trailers for movies, I'm still not sure.) That's what it's like with Ji-Eun Lim and Doona Bae. It doesn't help that each of them spends time with the kidnapping victim either. Ryu's girlfriend and his sister didn't just need to be introduced earlier as bodies, they needed to be introduced in such a way that the viewer knew who they were and what their relationships and living arrangements with Ryu were.

That lack of exposition regarding the relationships of the characters nearly killed the movie for me. Later, everything could be figured out. But I was so busy trying to figure out who was whom, it prevented from feeling any empathy with (sympathy for?) any of the the characters until the movie was nearly over.

Very little about this movie is pedestrian except for the constant use of coincidence. If there's a little detail introduced, you can bet that it'll be used later. Like Signs and Die Hard 2, if it's remarkable it's a device. Ryu is a deaf mute. Well, that'll bite him in the britches. Ryu relaxes at batting practice. Give him an aluminum slugger and watch him go. His girlfriend is a protester. That'll play a part. Park Dong-jin is an electrical engineer (although his business seems to be metallurgy). The use of tech gadgets would be a good guess.

Oh, and how inept the cops are is pretty usual. They're dragging a lake for some reason. They expected to find one body and did. So why are they continuing to look? And since the water is clear enough to see the bottom at any point why have they brought brought scuba divers and pontoon boats? To make it more sketchy, despite all of this activity they don't find a rock covered body within twenty feet of shore. They probably found pocket change a simmer lost, though.

This brings up some crystal ball insights. How did the police know about the body in the lake in the first place? This sort of magical knowledge is what ultimately made me decide that this movie wasn't ready for prime time.

Park Dong-jin can find people that the police cannot by being in the right place at the right time and listenting to a nearby radio. The host of the radio program is talking about a letter they received from Ryu. Serendipity cubed for Park Dong-jin.

How did the kidnapping take place? I dunno. How did Park Dong-jin find Ryu's girlfriend's apartment so easily? I dunno. Why did the black marketeers want to see Ryu's girlfriend? I dunno. How did Ryu find out the location of the black market hideout? I dunno. Maybe his girlfriend told him, but that goes against her character. Why did Ryu sit in his car so long before going to his next destination? I dunno. Whatever happened to the retard at the lake? I dunno. Who offered to pay Park Dong-jin ten million won near the end of the film and why? I dunno.

There are dozens of other questions you'll ask yourself during the course of the movie. Many of them have answers that you can piece together from the facts that eventually come to light. Not all of the answers will be satisfactory, however.

The movie had high aspirations, but tried to do too much. Add to that the director's apparent refusal to substitute some pretty scenes for plot advancement and cohesion and you've got a flawed product. Still, it's worth watching if you like "edgy" Asian cinema.

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