Park Chan-wook spins an urban tale of unbending mercilessness
In 2001, a new aesthetic bridging the arthouse and grindhouse came aboveground with the American release of Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” made two years earlier, and Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl.”
Such artsploitation films combine extremes of sex and violence with stylistic choices, slow pacing, and an openness to wide tonal shifts alien to ordinary genre films. Needless to say, this development hasn’t been greeted with cheers everywhere. Nor have any artsploitation films become major U.S. hits.
However, many have found an enthusiastic cult audience, especially on DVD. If artsploitation films have one thing in common, it’s restoring pain to screen violence. In a American context, that’s what’s most interesting and valuable about them. In Doug Liman’s popular Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie vehicle “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” murder has less moral, emotional, or even physical weight than a fender-bender; the privileges of stardom include the right to kill without consequences. Its violence is antiseptic.
By contrast, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is awash with blood and urine. Its torture scenes are difficult to watch, as they should be. Its chain of bloodshed is permeated with loss and grief. Which depiction does more to trivialize violence? Yet “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is rated PG-13, while even the trailer for “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is rated R.
A deaf and mute man, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), works at a smelting factory. His sister will die unless she gets a kidney transplant soon. His situation deteriorates further when he’s fired from his job and gets ripped off by organ traffickers. His activist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) comes up with a strategy––making money by kidnapping his former boss’ daughter. Yeong-mi insists that it will be a “good kidnapping,” in which the girl will be well taken care of and returned to her father as soon as he delivers the money, but things go awry.
Ryu’s sister commits suicide. While he buries her body near a riverside, the kidnapped girl goes for a walk and accidentally drowns. Her father, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), comes after Ryu and Yeong-mi.
Made in 2002, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is the first part of a trilogy about revenge. Its successor, “Oldboy,” was re-leased earlier this year, and the third film, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” will come out next fall or winter.
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” isn’t exactly realistic—unless Korean urinals are plastered with stickers aimed at human organ buyers––but it’s less grounded in myth and fantasy than “Oldboy,” whose plot pivots around a hypnotist so powerful that he can keep the protagonist totally under his thrall. In a statement in the press kit, Park says that “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” contains “a small amount of realism… the reality of one who considers the world a barren desert.”
Avoiding the desperately hip flash of “Oldboy,” this prequel’s vision of urban despair––all dingy colors, claustrophobic apartments, and so much noise pollution that deafness seems preferable––is a thoroughly believable environment. In some respects, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is a neo-noir, its narrative a spiral of violence that no one seems able to stop after an initial crime sets a chain in motion. It has a stylized, hyper-real quality, particularly in its vivid sound design.
Park doesn’t avoid close-ups, but he frequently uses panoramic long shots with deep focus, directly facing the action. The background is often filled with activity, whether visual or aural. In one key scene, a character listens to a radio played by men in the next apartment, a space Park often connects to Ryu’s through unbroken tracking shots. These directorial decisions emphasize the extent to which no man or woman is an island.
There are no heroes in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” no one the audience can safely identify with. But there are also no real villains. The characters are victims of a moral climate in which compassion is dead and everyone thinks the ends justify the means. However, their worst actions are rooted in understandable situations and emotions––economic desperation and the pain of seeing a loved one die. The title is serious. Park does indeed have sympathy for “Mr. Vengeance”––who could be any of the three main characters at various points––and expects us to supply the empathy so lacking on-screen.
Rich or poor, CEO or anarchist, everyone in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” has the same vulnerabilities and succumbs to the same amorality. While the film’s anger about corporate irresponsibility and poor people’s lack of access to health care feels genuine, its leftists offer no real alternative to the society they claim to oppose, although they do turn the ending into an ironic, if bloody, joke.
In addition to Park’s trilogy, Tartan releases a line of films straight-to-video under the “Asia Extreme” banner. It would be a shame if “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” wound up in such a cultist ghetto after a token two-week theatrical run. It’s Asian, and its violence may be extreme, but its investigation of revenge fantasies describes something very real in American culture and politics, as well as Korea’s. The film leaves no doubt that South Korea is at the forefront of our young century’s best world cinema.