Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer(s): Jae-sun Lee, Jong-yong Lee, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae
South Korean films have, for whatever reason, a noticeable sensibility of being apologetic. What, exactly, South Koreans are apologizing for I've never been able to determine, even after having lived on the peninsula for a year. This sense of apology is prevalent in every genre: horror, drama, fantasy, action. The guilty are guilty (whether objectively or subjectively so) and are always punished. It is not, however, a punishment befitting of "justice prevails." Rather, it is quite simply... punishment. It is a sad aspect of their art, but also the aspect that reveals their art to be decidedly South Korean. I wish I could explain it better, but my experience in sociology and cultural anthropology is far from qualified to do so.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not the most disturbing film I've ever seen, but it is far and away the most depressing film I've ever seen. Following the misadventures of a young man struggling to take care of his invalid sister (suffering from a debilitating kidney ailment), this is - at its core - a tale of morality gone wrong. The young man, Ryu, will do anything it takes to save his sister. Unfortunately for him, life does not reveal itself to be Machiavellian, and when Ryu delves into the morally ambiguous (and, indeed, morally wrong) everything backfires. And I do mean everything.
Though the plot is complicated, convoluted, and often nonsensical, director Chan-wook Park is clearly not a filmmaker satisfied with hanging plot threads. Quite literally adept at the concept of Chekhov's gun, everything introduced in the film - be it via main or sub-plot - enjoys a resolution by the end of the film. That every single resolution is painfully depressing is both the point and beside the point. Even the protagonist is a fitting example of Chekhov's gun (Ryu is both deaf and dumb). In a harrowing arc that involves Ryu kidnapping the daughter of his former boss in order to collect a ransom intended to pay for his sister's kidney transplant, the following occurs:
- Ryu is unaware that he was laid off, not out of corporate greed to increase the bottom line, but because the company has entered bankruptcy (taking his former boss' assets with it).
- Ryu's sister - who is introduced to the kidnapped girl - discovers what her brother has done and commits suicide from the shame incurred.
- When burying his sister at their favorite place (a river they played at when children), the little girl drowns. Ryu's deafness does not allow him to hear the girl's cries for help.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a brilliant film, though I do not recommend it for everyone (few, in fact). That it is so well-made is its curse. The South Korean "apology" in this film is overwhelming, stretching far beyond the fringes of the society that created it and into the realm of the world-at-large. Its presentation is both vulnerable and matter-of-fact and, in this aspect, it makes no apology.
A cautionary tale of revenge, it will make you feel horrible to be human. But it will also remind you that things could be much, much worse. Though its effectiveness lies in the fact that you will never forget how bad it made you feel, its efficiency in storytelling can make you appreciate where you are. Even if that place is the top of a bridge, staring down into inviting waters.
Make of that (and the film) what you will.