Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hits these shores now in large part due to the recent positive reception for Oldboy. Both films make up two thirds of Korean director Chanwook Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy, with the third, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, due out next year. If you haven’t yet seen Oldboy, which came out on DVD August 23, you might want to hold off, as it was made after Mr. Vengeance and represents a definite progression. Both, however, depict humans at their most unpleasant; if that’s not your thing, you mightn’t want to concern yourself with either.
Park’s debut feature, Joint Security Area, has not been as widely seen in the West, though by most accounts it’s a far more conventional film than his subsequent two. Judging by Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, however, we can state that he has an obsession with the notion of revenge — especially the kind that can cut two ways, wherein both parties feel righteously aggrieved. The mutual quests ultimately prove nothing but destructive, and since the opposing pairs pit one man who seems to have lost everything versus another who apparently has everything, one could easily assume that the stories are a larger metaphor for the Korean conflict, in which the impoverished communist North and the prosperous democratic South have technically remained at war for almost half a century with no positive results.
Mr. Vengeance initially centers on Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute foundry worker with sea-green hair, who supports a terminally ill sister who needs a new kidney in order to survive. Lured by the prospect of an illicit trade of his own kidney for a suitable donor’s, he finds himself mugged, naked, and missing an organ with nothing to show for it. Worse, the money he has just been relieved of would have been exactly the right amount to pay for a legitimate transplant that just became available.
Egged on by his girlfriend Youngmin (Bae Doona), an aspiring leftist revolutionary so radical she actually tried to defect to North Korea, Ryu hatches a plan to kidnap the ten-year-old daughter of the man who has just fired him, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho). Naturally, things go horribly wrong, and the film ultimately switches perspectives, following Dong-jin’s story rather than Ryu’s, though of course the two are intertwined and destined to bring closure to one another.
The action is much slower-moving than in Oldboy; it’s more static than kinetic, and there’s no gunplay. There is also no voice-over to clarify the details, which can be aggravating; Park deliberately avoids filling in some of the blanks, leaving the viewer to do so — which is a mighty task when all the actors are unfamiliar. For the longest time, it isn’t even clear that Ryu’s girlfriend and his sister are separate characters, and you may find yourself wondering why one person expresses such contradictory opinions. Only when one is dead is it absolutely clear that there were two characters to begin with.
Consistent between the films, however, is Park’s mastery of imagery, with every shot a thing of beauty, even as the story delivers nothing but hideousness. There’s nothing quite as unforgettable as the live-octopus-eating or the one-take hammer battle in Oldboy, but Park is perhaps the only director with the sheer chutzpah to try to make the audience root for the violent death of a man afflicted with cerebral palsy — and then not deliver, but make you wish he had.
Also consistent is Park’s perception of the hand of fate — for the worse, of course. In Oldboy, events seemed manipulated in a grand cosmic scheme to ensure the nastiest possible outcome; here, we have such coincidences as fliers for black-market organ donation plastered in bathrooms while Ryu relieves himself. Seriously now … do you know any illegal traffickers so brazen as to promote their wares via fliers in corporate restrooms? This is the one stretch in narrative logic that’s a wee bit too much.
A more pressing problem with Park’s naturalistic worldview is that it’s hard to find anyone to root for. Oldboy‘s Oh Dae-su had his problems, and was truly screwed up by movie’s end, but he was basically sympathetic, as most of his major transgressions were unwitting. Ryu is likable only to the extent that he helps his sister, but he isn’t even effective at that, and he goes against her wishes more than once; we eventually learn that even his best efforts, had they succeeded, would not have done much good. Dong-jin appears to be a loving father, but he isn’t a nice boss, and we aren’t given much to go on before he and his little girl are separated.