Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

With a stunning title like that, it'd better be able to back it up. Thankfully, it can.

Released in 2002, certified HK-CAT3. Reviewed on 03 Mar 2003 by Scott Morris
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This Korean movie was brought to my attention when the rotund movie geek Harry Knowles of, possibly the ugliest site on the planet, voted this his movie of the year. Despite many of his views having little resemblance to normality (liking Daredevil? Get a grip...) I thought I'd see what the fuss is about. While I'm not 100% sure why such praise was lavished upon it, Sympathy.. is certainly a superior, bleakly violent tale which lives up to it's great title.

The story concerns Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a young chap working in some kind of smelting factory, giving up his dream of completing art college in favour of making money to care for his seriously ill sister, who is in need of a kidney transplant. No easy task, especially not when you happen to be deaf and dumb. He would happily donate one of his kidneys, but he isn't compatible, and it looks like it may take his doctor some time to find a suitable donor. Even from the outset in our introduction to Ryu's life at the factory it's clear that the film will contain a great deal of innovative use of sound and colour. His world is a sonically flat, with the sounds of the factory dulling to a low frequency bass, providing an arresting companion to the bleak visuals of the factory. This contrast is made all the starker as the workers emerge blinking into the sunlight as the shift finishes. The strong cinematography is carried on throughout the film, sometimes with beautiful locations as well as the cities grimy undersides.

The grimier locations feature quite prominently as Ryu decides to take matters into his own hands to find a suitable donor for his sister, arranging a black market trade. His kidney plus 10 million won to get one for his sister. This is around 5400 quid, a large sum of money especially for someone who has just been laid off as the plant engages on a downsizing exercise. In retrospect, trusting a crooked doctor who also appears to be a heroin addict may not have been the smartest thing, and indeed he wakes up abandoned in the building, sans clothes and a kidney. Irony strikes a bitter blow as the doctor announces a donor has been found for his sister, but Ryu has no money to pay for the operation.

He turns to his girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae), a militant anti-government activist. And a student, obviously. Her plan is as simple as her justification; kidnap the daughter of his ex-boss, Park and extort the money from him. According to Cha, there are 'good kidnappings and bad kidnappings', the dubious difference being whether the kid dies or not. They would be in the good kidnapping racket, obviously. Cha is pretty much the master of puppets here, and the character is brought to life well by Bae. The plan goes off without a hitch, mostly. Ryu retrieves the money, but on his return finds that his sister has taken her own life.

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Ryu is distraught, but keeps his promise to his sister to bury her where they played as children, taking the child, Yu-Sun, along with him. Events begin to spiral completely out of hand when the girl drowns in the lake as Ryu weepingly builds a cairn to his sister, the kids' screams going unheard (obviously).

Park (Kang-ho Song) is devastated when the police inform him they have found his child's body, even more so when having to identify the body. It remains, then, a mystery why he stays to witness the autopsy. I doubt this is standard practice anywhere in the world, and it's never explained. The film's only real failures are points like this where a few things are thrown in randomly which occasionally have little relation to the main events of the movie. This kind of thing can prove more off-putting than anything else, jolting the viewer from the otherwise strong narrative to consider things that have no purpose being considered.

The battle lines are now drawn as it becomes more obvious that things are going to go from bleak and nasty to bleaker and nastier. Ryu enlists Cha's help to track down the black market kidney merchants. With the help of the police Park follows some leads back to Cha. These have disturbingly violent consequences leading to the inevitable conclusion of Park vs. Ryu. The circle of bleak violence closes; no-one wins; everyone loses. Everybody hurts continually from about 45 minutes into the film. From the initial plans it seems likely that the consequences of Cha's plan were never considered past the 'saving Ryu's sister' stage, and with her death the plan, and he participants life fall into a spiral of hatred and vengeance from which no one leaves unscathed.

I'm not altogether sure why Mr Knowles singled this out for such glowing praise, saying "It is perfect". Seems strange given that you can point at any of it's plot constructs and say they have been done before either in whole or with minor changes in any number of other movies. The plot contrivance to start the action can be seen in The Killer or Sonatine. The tone of the movie is similar to Get Carter or The Long Good Friday, or indeed any number of the 'gritty dramas with added violence'. It occurs to me that Audition is comparable to this movie in a great many ways. The violence is more pronounced and extreme in most of Miike's work, but the more sedate pace of Audition matches this well. The ending has parallels in City On Fire and therefore Reservoir Dogs. The way events rapidly mushroom in consequence is similar to John Woo's Bullet In The Head.

The one common element in all the films mentioned above is that they're all damn fine movies. While Sympathy... may be said to have some common elements in the above, there's no outright theft of any one movie, more a subtle blend of them with it's own character woven into it. The use of sound throughout Ryu's world is startling, much like P.T. Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. The acting is great throughout, Ryu's especially portraying him as a realistic character with a disability rather than a disability with a character tacked on as happens often in movies.

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It was said to be an 'authentic' movie, yet it's exactly the lack of authenticity in parts that stop it being a classic for me. To my mind there is no reason for a father to be present at the autopsy of his child, and no attempt is made to explain Park's presence at his daughter's. Minor points like this seem like nit picking but when built up over the course of movie it can hurt it disproportionately, as you are forced to try and explain what's happening as the film has chosen not to.

So merely a 'good' film then, rather than a 'great'. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance still outclasses by some margin the majority of the movies released last year, and certainly worth watching. This is made difficult by the lack of a distribution deal outside of the Far East. While it can be imported easily enough from places such as, I'm not sure it's worth ponying up the extra for the privilege.

Nonetheless, were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements I'd award this 4/5 Tippymarks.

Chan-wook Park
Cast list:
Kang-ho Song (Park Dong-jin)
Ha-kyun Shin (Ryu)
Du-na Bae (Cha Yeong-mi)
Ji-Eun Lim (Ryu's Sister)
Bo-bae Han (Yu-sun)