Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

The obscenity of spilt blood mingles with the purity of a clear stream in the climactic scene of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Any clarity left is gone. The divide between hero and villain, victim and perpetrator are as easy to divide as it would be to seperate the blood from the water with one’s bare hands. Perhaps this is because in Chan-wook Park’s world, hero and villain is often the same person.

Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), certainly appears to be the victim of fate. He’s deaf and mute and his sister (played by Ji-Eun Lim) needs a kidney transplant. Desperate, and near the end of his options, he tries a couple of radical ideas, one of which makes him even more of a victim. His last ditch effort is to kidnap the daughter of Park Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song), a rich businessman, and hold her up for ransom.

Here, the line between victim and villain is thin. It only takes one action for Ryu to find himself on the wrong side. And yet, the film complicates this because he is a sympathetic character. His intentions are good. He’s not out for wealth or personal gain, but to simply help his sister survive.

The only problem is that Ryu’s means to helping his sister makes Park Dong-jin, a victim as well, a man aimless and bereft as his life begins to unravel in the absence of his daughter. And yet, his reaction results in some of the most grueling and horrific moments of the film, any shred of morality and humanity he had before was stripped from him when his child was taken from him.

And unlike the tragic, inevitable descent into the only possible solution, the film makes these circumstances even more grueling and overwhelming because the lens of hindsight always brings to bear that these characters could have chosen differently. This complicates the tragedy of the film because, to a large extent, the characters bring it upon themselves.

The question then becomes does the film actual elicit any sympathy for any of its characters? Sympathy is perhaps too strong a word given how complicated and messed up the scenarios wrapped around these characters become. What’s clear is that one can understand why these characters take the actions they do, even if they find them extreme or highly objectionable.

And Chan-wook Park, certainly makes these scenes as objectionable as possible. The violence pulls few punches, but without being punctuated or glamorized. If anything, the film is one of the most revolting and horrific displays of violence in recent years, not only because of the gore, but also because of the emotions and players involved.

It’s the purity and focus of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance that makes it a strong and memorable film. The narrative trappings around it are, at times, a bit more cluttered and complex than they need to be, but the scenes build perfectly around the ideas and emotions of the film. Therefore, in its own way, the narrative only serves the muddled and baffling thematic crux of the film.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing