Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/2/07.
Throughout the history of Asian cinema, countries like Japan, China, Taiwan, and even Hong Kong were often the dominate places that helped give Asia a large profile in international cinema. In recent years, another country has been getting attention for re-energizing Asian films in South Korea. Directors like Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ki-duk brought new imagery and styles to the genre ranging from horror, drama, and action. Another director that's been getting attention for his groundbreaking work is Chan-wook Park. Park was making films since the early 1990s when in 2000, he scored a big hit with Joint Security Area the explored the divisions of countries and border issues. In 2002, Park created work on a film trilogy about vengeance known as The Vengeance Trilogy that would give him international prestige and most recently, controversy. In 2002, he released the first part of the trilogy with the film entitled Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
Written by Park along with Jae-Sun Lee, Mu-Yeong Lee, and Yong-Jong Lee, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tells the story of a deaf-mute who goes on a mission to find a kidney for his ailing sister. Along the way, he encounters several people where he gets involved in a series of unfortunate events. Directed by Park, the film explores vengeance and the brutal streets of South Korea. Starring Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae, and Ji-eun Lim. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a brilliant, harrowing drama from Chan-wook Park.
A letter is being told on the radio as the deaf-mute Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) has given up his art school dreams to work in a factory in order to raise money to get his sister (Ji-eun Lim) a new kidney as she is falling ill. Helping Ryu is his radical girlfriend Yeong-mi Cha (Doona Bae) as they’re trying to help out. Ryu is even considering of giving his kidney to his sister but the only problem is that he has a different blood type than hers. Making things worse, Ryu has just been fired in his factory job as his only hope is through a black market organ dealer. He contacts the leaders of black market by paying 10 million won to give him his kidney in exchange for the right kidney for her sister. After giving them black market the money, he is left naked in an abandoned building while the doctor tells Ryu that a kidney has been found for his sister but the operation will cost 10 million won.
Angry over the loss of money, Yeong-mi decides to concoct a plan to steal money from his former boss by kidnapping the boss' daughter. The plan is eventually scrapped as they find the a neighbor of the boss named Dong-jin Park (Kang-ho Song) with a little girl during a scuffle between Ryu's ex-boss and a former employee of the factory. Immediately, Ryu and Yeong-mi kidnap Park's daughter (Bo-bae Han) and put her in the care of Ryu's sister. Ryu and Yeong-mi concoct a ransom for Park to pay and everything seems to go right until a series of tragedies occur.
After Park had been freed after being tied by Ryu after the exchange, he learns what had just happened. The aftermath of the tragedies destroys Park emotionally as he is cornered by cops about the tragedy. Learning that a black market was involved in dealing with organs, Park decides to make his own investigation into what went wrong. Ryu and Yeong-mi learn that their troubles are far from over as they learn they're not done with the black market people. They're unaware that Park is seeking vengeance over what had happened. When Yeong-mi attempts to make a deal with the black market dealers, she is unaware about her troubles as Park is going after her. Ryu meanwhile, has his own idea of vengeance where immediately, Ryu and Park would confront each other over the tragedies they suffered.
Vengeance is obviously the theme that Chan-wook Park is saying yet, the momentum and what drives vengeance is what makes this film very interesting. While the film is a bit flawed in the expectations of a genre with moments of excessive violence in the few scenes along with character study drama. The fact that Park chooses to tell the story of two men being driven to revenge over the different actions they're in. The structure of the screenplay is interesting for the focus on character. The first half is about the plan of the kidnap and Ryu's motives. The second half is the tragic aftermath as well as Park's own personal investigation and vendetta over what happened. Both characters are sympathetic over their loss yet their actions make them more complex in how far they're willing to gain some kind of justice though it's blind. A subplot involving Yeong-mi's radical leftist actions doesn't really work until the end while the story about the black market is intriguing into how business is conducted as well as the seedy world of corruption that surrounds South Korea.
Park's direction definitely drives the film's dramatic momentum in the screenplay. The direction is very observant as well as interpretative into what the characters are doing. Park's approach is stylish with bits of violence that is horrifying to watch while the tragic moments are unexpected. Park observes what is going to happen, even the tension between Ryu and Park is just ominous to watch to see what's going on. Despite some of the film's flaws, Park has indeed created a solid film that explores the dark depths of revenge.
Cinematographer Byeong-il Kim does amazing work in the film’s photography, notably for capturing the stark exterior sequences in the film’s locations like the river and the city which is unique in itself. Production designer Jung-hwa Choe and art director Sang-man Oh also do great work in creating the working class look of the homes of Ryu and his neighbors with Park having a more posh look. Costume designer Seung-heui Shin brings color to the look of the characters from the red shirt that Ryu wears along with his blue hair to the radical clothing that Yeong-mi wears. Editor Sang-Beon Kim definitely adds a nice, elliptical pace to the film with elements of some stylish cuts to convey the film's action and intensity. Sound mixers Seok-weon Kim and Seung-cheol Lee also do fine work in creating the tense atmosphere and tension of the scenes that are shown on the film.
The film's cast is great that features notable small roles from Kan-hie Lee as Park's ex-wife, Se-dong Kim as an investigator, Dae-yeon Lee as the black market organizer, and Seung-beom Ryu as a mentally-disabled man in the river. Bo-bae Han is great as Park's daughter Yu-sun who is unaware of what's going on or why she's kidnapped only to be in great care by Ryu's sister. Ji-Eun Lim is also excellent in her brief role as Ryu’s ill sister who seems like the kind of person that Ryu adores and why he's so loyal to her. Doona Bae is really good as Ryu's anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi who pretty much comes up with the whole plan while working on her anarchist movement. She is an excellent character who plays the only friend Ryu can communicate with as she is unaware of the troubles that's caused.
Ha-kyun Shin gives a fantastic performance as the deaf-mute Ryu who is really a troubled young man wanting to do the right thing but always do it in the wrong way. Shin brings a lot of sympathy early on in the film but as the film progresses, Shin becomes darker and unsure. Shin's performance is amazing in displaying a character who is flawed in so many ways yet relatable to an audience. Kang-ho Song is also great as Mr. Park, a man who is a victim at first only to go into a dark world of vengeance. Song brings a restraint to the performance as a man haunted only to seek revenge in the worse way. Not only does he bring sympathy to his performance but also darker which makes him just as complex as the character of Ryu.
While it's not a perfect film or superior to its follow-up Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is still an excellent, harrowing film from Chan-wook Park. New to Park's work will find this as a nice place to start, even with its trilogy. Park fans will say Oldboy is much better as well as a superior introduction. Anyone who isn't into graphic violence might want to stay away from this though it's only in a few scenes. In the end, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is still a pretty damn cool movie.
Chan-wook Park Films: (The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream) - (Trio) - (Judgement) - JSA: Joint Security Area - (If You Were Me-Never Ending Peace and Love) - Oldboy - Three... Extremes-Cut - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - I'm a Cyborg but That's OK - Thirst - (Night Fishing) - Stoker - The Handmaiden
(C) thevoid99 2011