The German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller is credited with saying that “Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder and its end is despair.” That despair can certainly be found in Park Chan-wook’s 2002 motion picture Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
This is a bleak film out of necessity, a movie that explores the all-consuming fire of revenge without condemning retribution as a viable option. In fact, there are moments in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance that suggest Chan-wook not only has sympathy for retribution but seems to take pleasure in it.
Shin Ha-kyun is Ryu, a deaf working stiff with a sister (Im Ji-eun) in need of a kidney transplant. Ryu is the wrong blood type, plus he’s laid off from his job. Because a kidney transplant costs an arm and a leg on the up-and-up, he seeks out the black market and is subsequently ripped off. Desperate, Ryu and his girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) come up with a plan.
The scheme is to kidnap the daughter (Bo-bae Han) of Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), a wealthy executive and friend to Ryu’s former boss. The plan goes off without a hitch, at least at first, but then his sister takes her own life and Ryu is in charge of the young girl and the kidnapping plot. Things go from bad to worse in unimaginable fashion and soon Dong-jin is out for blood.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is couched in a world without affordable healthcare, which is what turns Ryu into such a desperate man. After he discovers that he isn’t a viable donor, his trip to the criminal underworld doesn’t go well and he’s left without a kidney (his own!) and without the money he had to front for it. Not only that, but when a match actually is found he can’t afford it.
That desperation courses right through to Yeong-mi, who is an anarchist of sorts. She suggests the abduction scheme because she knows Dong-kin won’t miss the kind of money they’re asking for, while Ryu will find it life-changing. That rich/poor dichotomy is at the core of much of what drives Chan-wook’s picture.
Consider an early scene where Dong-jin is confronted by a former worker, another one of the laid-off masses. The poor sap takes a blade to himself right in front of the rich guy and his daughter, putting on a gruesome display that reveals just how deep economic wounds can run. Chan-wook’s unflinching exploration of these injustices is particularly visceral.
So too is his exploration of mental illness as evidenced by the bizarre man roaming the stony riverbed. He becomes a sort of vulture, picking the bones and rocks for artifacts that have some semblance of meaning for himself. When he is juxtaposed against Ryu, who himself is handicapped, it makes for some interesting considerations.
These characters have, along with Yeong-mi and Ryu’s sister, slipped through the cracks of Korean society. They have no choices. They can’t afford to live, literally. Contrast their lives with that of Dong-jin and one finds a material disparity that’s hard to reconcile. But as Dong-jin talks to the police, the audience discovers that he’s known suffering as well.
When he finds his vengeance path, then, it’s also all he has. This sets Ryu and Dong-jin on a collision course that is, pardon the pun, electric. These two despairing men have nothing to live for and Chan-wook’s delivery of their catastrophic conclusion could not be more poetic. That he does this primarily through imagery and not pointless dialogue is another of this picture’s great strengths.
And his imagery is fantastic. Early scenes focus on stairways and corridors, showing characters moving to their respective destinies as shadows form. When Ryu makes his way to the criminals to search out the parasitic black market option for his sister, Chan-wook and Kim Byung-il use a gorgeous and shadowy staircase without rails. The symbolism here is rich. The higher Ryu goes, the longer the shots.
The accumulation of overhead shots in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance suggests a world from above, a set of circumstances that aren’t judged so much on the personal but on the planetary. As Dong-jin drags a draining Ryu to his fate, the audience watches evenly from above. Is this justice or not? Does it matter anymore?
The entire graphic presentation of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has a mystifying effect in the way Chan-wook interpolates his close-ups with the overhead shots and his prominent wide shots. Couple the visuals with the movie’s use of sound, which both explores and invades Ryu’s deaf world, and the finished product is a particularly engaging film indeed.
Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a reminder of the importance of cinema when it comes to developing and exploring commanding narratives. While some may dismiss this as another grisly payback yarn, there’s a lot more to it than that and its artistic rewards are many.