Something I have wanted to do for a while on Readers Digested is talk about South Korean cinema in a significant, expansive fashion. I appreciate and respect all of the writers who have contributed to creating our small, but committed brand, however, sometimes I can feel like we are a little on the vanilla side of the horror genre. We will share our thoughts and conclusions about the latest Hollywood fare, cry foul whenever we feel we are being shortchanged, and savor the relics of yesteryear we herald as upstanding, classics of the genre. It is a vicious cycle, and there’re no easy answers on how that can be broken, but I am hopeful we can find more entertainment and new, fresh ideas, and better celebrate the artistry of filmmaking and dark storytelling by being adventurous moviegoers. This is why I have decided Sundays will be South Korean day here on Readers Digested, and it will start with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (until I have reviewed 25 South Korean films – the amount needed to crown a “Champion”).
Why Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance? I don’t actually have a reason, really. Similar to The Strangers who tormented their victims for no other reason than because they “were home,” I decided to watch this film for little reason other than because it has been in my queue for an extended period. Truth is, I actually watched the film about half a decade prior, but never jotted down what I thought about it.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a 2002 thriller film directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook, a name you will be hearing a lot of this month. The film comprises itself of a cast that includes Shin-Ha-kyun, Song Kang-ho, Bae Doona, Han Bo-bae, and Im Ji-eun, and is the first installment of Chan-wook’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy, which we will be discussing in full later on. The film won several awards, but performed poorly at the box office and received a mixed response from critics and moviegoers alike, with many berating its harsh, rough-around-the-edges execution. However, this was the first installment of Park’s Trilogy and, perhaps audiences were not prepared for his onslaught of mean-spirited, cutthroat cinema.
The film follows a young man named Ryu, a deaf-mute factory worker who aspires to earn enough money to finance his sister’s kidney transplant. However, as desperation begins to weigh in, he makes the decision to hold the daughter of a wealthy man hostage for ransom. As the plan goes awry, the rest of the film largely concerns itself with the aftermath and consequences of that decision.
Park Chan-wook is an interesting director and a filmmaker I look forward to talking about extensively here on Readers Digested. Thankfully, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the right way to begin our journey with the man. The film shows a lot of what is on his mind, and a lot of what was on the mind with the Vengeance Trilogy altogether. Similar to the classic Joker motif (and I am not saying that simply because our main-protagonist has green hair), the film shows how a bad chain of events can lead an individual down a road they would not otherwise travel.
The film is neither subtle nor disciplined in its execution, flinging everything it can at its protagonist, and everyone else, for that matter. Early on, I feel it shows an inability for the director and the script to reel in their own worst impulses. For example, our protagonist’s sister is in dire need of a kidney, right? She is in agony and can sometimes be heard writhing in pain in their apartment. For a peculiar attempt at black-comedy, the neighbors next door are shown masturbating, believing her cries of agony to be that of sexual nature. Here’s another: Ryu kidnaps a man’s daughter, and, during a sequence show he believes everything is in his favor, he is shown playing with the man’s daughter, and looking up her dress. Considering how Ryu is portrayed as a good person in a bad circumstance, that behavior, playful or not, is problematic and weird. And, after that: a mentally handicap person plays a significant role in this film. I have no idea where he came from, I have no idea why he is there, but he comes across as both thematically jarring and narratively convenient. He appears on our screen during a pivotal moment in the film and wreaks havoc, with no real explanation for who he is, and I was left perplexed by why he was deemed a necessary inclusion.
That is what I think certain aspects come down to, it is either peculiar eccentricities or a very weird sense of humor on the part of the filmmakers involved, but it does not mesh well with overall themes of the film.
Similar to a lot of the other South Korean films I have seen, the subject-matter focuses a lot on class systems, the implications of poverty, and how it can help good people rationalize doing bad things. Most of the characters, in some way or form, are a victim of circumstances. The main-protagonist has done everything he could in order to help his sister, including a choice encounter with individuals from the black market, but has been shoved into a corner. Meanwhile, the father who he has decided to target does not, inherently, seem like a bad person. He is an individual who has managed to find financial, and even though it is sad whenever someone succeeds and another person does not, the blame lies more largely on societal circumstances than the fault of the individual who managed to survive it. This is not a circumstance, like in Parasite either, where the rich man feels snobby and disrespectful, but, rather, seems like a decent man.
I believe the storyline had a lot of potential, but sometimes, like in the weirdness I mentioned earlier, feels bogged down by its own lack of discipline.
The film is hard, gritty, and meanspirited in its approach, but sometimes, it can feel very much like everything is slanted in favor of that agenda. Characters flip like switches and, although their portrayals are consistent, their characterizations always feel one step too far to where it starts to feel like an agenda.
I believe a lot of that could have been helped and guided had the pacing been more thriller-esque approach, with more of a cat-and-mouse scenario between each character. I never really felt one way or the other about things. I understood how I should feel, but I never felt that forward momentum pulling me in one direction or the other.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not a bad film, and, certain aspects, like certain shots in the film, and particularly, the score, which has that, almost jazzy, understated, orchestral sound to it, add a lot to it. However, because of certain impulses I have mentioned, I don’t think it had the pedigree and filtering needed to better streamline what it had to say for itself, nor did it have that punch you in the teeth narrative and payoff that might make you overlook certain things.
Rating: – 2.8 out of 5.0