By Jonathan Holin
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a deep study on regret and loss, betrayal and the bleak, sometimes savage need for retribution. This is a film about people backed into corners with few plausible means of escape, and what we are compelled to do when others’ plans get in the way of our own.
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), deaf and mute, works in a factory to support his ailing sister who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), his boss, is forced by South Korea’s dour economy to lay off a number of workers, Ryu included among them.
With his window of opportunity to save his sister closing and no more means of income, Ryu makes a deal for a suitable kidney on the black market. When he wakes up alone with his money and organ missing, he is forced to involve others and kidnap Dong-jin’s daughter.
Dong-jin is willing to comply and pay the ransom money, the exact amount Ryu needs for his sister. The economic downturn has touched Dong-jin, too, and is the reason his wife left him. His daughter is all he has left. But like a Shakespearean tragedy, hidden forces are always conspiring against the players. Cruel twists of fate inevitably force more desperate action and fuel the need for revenge.
There’s a sense of helplessness that pervades Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; that despite all efforts something must go awry. Lack of opportunity is what forces action in this film. Ryu cannot speak or hear, so he is often perceived as dumb. He has the wrong blood type. His sister cannot work and now neither can he.
But his intentions are pure. His face conveys an openness and foolhardy honesty. It is also Ryu’s love for his sister - aside from his anarchist girlfriend the only person who he communicates with - which compels him to break his social contract and seek means outside the law.
Family is an important motivator for the action in this film as well. Even the black market organ dealers form a literal family. It is implied that the mother used to be a surgeon, but is now forced down darker avenues to provide for her sons, possibly due to a morphine addiction. As Ryu enacts his brutal revenge on this criminal family, she tells one of her sons not to pull out a screwdriver, which is lodged in an artery in his neck. But he does, and his final word, with an imploring and quizzical look is, “Mama,” before falling into a growing pool of his own blood.
Though there is a relatively small amount of violence to the film’s 129 minutes, the brutality specked throughout is sudden and visceral, and will no doubt leave most audiences cringing. The violence is savage but enacted with the cold, calm deliberateness of a surgeon. There is no pleasure or satisfaction; only the fulfillment of something that must be done.
In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance everybody gets his or her perceived idea of justice, far removed from what they initially set out to achieve. If one thing is certain it is that all actions have implications, and no one is necessarily safe from them. One act of revenge leads to another, and another, and it only stops when somebody finally says, enough. This is where Sympathy is needed.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the first of Chan-wook Park’s “Revenge” trilogy, though each film is unrelated to the other.