Korean director Park Chan-wook crossed over into ‘Western’ popularity with culty, ultraviolent festival-hit Oldboy. This was a thematic sequel to the less well-known Sympathy for Mister Vengeance, in a trilogy that concluded with the disappointing Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In my rarely-humble opinion, Sympathy for Mister Vengeance is the best of the three.
Like Chan-wook’s earlier work Joint Security Area (a portrayal of friendship between South Korean and North Korean soldiers), Sympathy for Mister Vengeance is a deeply humanist film.
This film frankly depicts violence, and the consequences of violence. That is not to say it is anti-violence necessarily, more that it does not flinch, or treat any violent act as a throwaway moment (and squeamish viewers should know director Chan-wook does not shy away from graphic images).
The plot concerns Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona, more recently famous for her role in Sense8), a young leftist whose deaf and dumb boyfriend Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is made redundant from his factory job, leading them to kidnap the bosses’ daughter. The kidnapping of course goes pear-shaped. In a masterful humanist move, the film then changes tack to portray factory owner Park Dong-jin (the prolific Song Kang-ho), his own experience of consequences, and his decision to seek revenge.
As this review asks, the story pivots on the question “who is deserving of our sympathy?” There is no false equivalence here, or easy moralising about how violence never solves anything, although the cycle of violence certainly comes to feel futile. Each act of violence is simply a fact; concrete, unavoidable, consequential.
Without sacrificing entertainment value, this is an antidote to the often casual portrayal of violence in cinema. Next to the resonance of this earlier work, Chan-wook’s Oldboy looks more like a slick but hollow experiment (then again, Rotten Tomatoes gives Sympathy a paltry 54% stating it is “more excessively gruesome than thrilling”, so opinions apparently differ).
The violence resonates with political history. The story begins with a wave of redundancies, a form of economic violence that swept East Asia in the late 90s; a resulting graphic suicide scene echoes a similar event during the UK Thatcher-era Miners’ Strike; and a climactic torture scene is reminiscent of the treatment of students during the South Korean democracy movement of the 1980s.
In the end, the cycle of violence comes full circle with consequences for ‘Mister Vengeance’. It’s an impressive film that both humanises such a character, and makes the violence against him entirely understandable.
Song Kang-ho depicts ‘Mister Vengeance’ with a quiet dignity belying the casual brutality of his actions. Meanwhile the younger, and apparently more naive, Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) is a leftist firebrand. While the film lightly mocks Yeong-mi’s solitary leafletting against neoliberalism (subtitled as ‘the new liberalism’), this does not feel insulting even as a fire-breathing leftist myself; we’ve all felt the cringe of leafletting ineffectually against an apparently invulnerable political machine.
Director Park Chan-wook manages many contradictions deftly. His style is both arch, with perfectly composed cinematic frames, and organic, with an intimate sense of its characters’ humanity. He often cuts into scenes in media res, during an awkward moment of silence, a very South Korean cinematic device.
Another five-star classic, worth a watch if you can stomach the brutality.