What begins as a clever crime caper, something like Coen Brothers-lite quickly descends into a gruesome and shocking tale of revenge and people pushed to their limits. Matter of fact, one of the great joys in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn’t in necessarily the first viewing, which is maybe not a joy, but in showing it to somebody else, and in this way it’s not too dissimilar from Oldboy, which is director Chan Wook Park’s equally shocking followup.
But it might be funny actually if you convinced somebody that it was just a kinda funny crime movie about kidnapping, because there is a turn in this movie, not a twist, but a turning point, where things go from unfortunate to positively plussing. It is so brutal, and I think one aspect that makes Chan Wook Park’s movies so hard-hitting is the cinematography. The most illustrative example of course being that which Tarantino and Eli Roth riffed on for Inglourious Basterds, Ha-Kyun Shin’s initial vengeance on the organ dealers. That shot where it’s a high angle, static, well-composed (pictured). Green-haired dude has just killed a guy with a screwdriver and knocked the other guy out with a metal baseball bat, so he drags the unconscious body down the stairs and makes damn sure he’s dead and his mom knows it, just wails on his head, with this sound that’s just too real. You get that pumpkiny balloon popping sound, and also the bat hitting the floor. And he just keeps going. But the camera is still. It holds that frame, offering no judgment, just showing the violence for what it is.
It’s sort of a distillation into one shot of the approach taken to Menace II Society, which is also a violent film but one that feels cold. The Hughes Brothers purposefully maintained that Brechtian distance to a subject that had before been viewed through a heartfelt and intimate lens. We are meant to analyze these violent people, understand how they’ve come to be the people they’ve become, but it never manipulates us into defining heroes or villains.
Which is an interesting approach, and I don’t know if it was just reactionary to Boyz N the Hood, because it doesn’t work quite as well as say The Wire, which balances viewer analysis with viewer emotion, both of which might be necessary to tell a good story. And to loop back to Sympathy, that’s actually what this movie manages to do, because this is Chan Wook Park’s last purest tragedy, his first of course being the stellar JSA: Joint Security Area, which I can see a dozen times and still be moved.
Oldboy is the story of two dickheads going at each other, and Lady Vengeance is a more black-and-white, no reference intended, depiction of revenge — Yeong Ae Lee plays the wronged victim who exacts her revenge on Park’s most vicious psycho to date. And both of those are interesting, and Sympathy is interesting because it’s two good guys going at each other. And that’s why it’s kinda sad.
In the beginning, socio-economic forces conspire to drive Ha-Kyun Shin’s character, Ryu, to incite the narrative, to kidnap the young daughter of his wealthy boss for some healthy ransom money. He is long-suffering, victimized, and actually handicapped, being deaf and mute. Interesting actor, that Ha-Kyun, especially after being the comic relief in Park’s prior film.
So in a movie like this we try to dig out a scapegoat to point at, and for me, the socio-economic thing isn’t enough because I don’t think this movie works really as a social commentary. It’s much more of a study than a conclusive analysis, coming away only with the sort of banal revelation that vengeance is damning. So the thematic meat really comes into character development, and the relationship not only between the two men, but between the two men and violence. Their slow seduction into power-fantasies made flesh and blood, brutality, torture. The question raised is how far are you willing to rationalize abhorrent behavior? And this is where we come back to the point that these two guys aren’t really bad guys.
It could be said that Ryu embarks on the kidnapping more because in his view, that’s just how you do business. There’s an element of the unspoken in society — his girlfriend, played by the now-international Bae Doona, says that this sort of thing happens all the time, so long as you don’t hurt the kid. Characters will go on to measure themselves against societal norms and mores, but because no one talks in this movie, Park reserves that sort of philosophizing more for Lady Vengeance. In Sympathy, these two guys always have motivation. Ryu needs to save his sister, and gets his kidneys cut out. Mr. Park, the wealthy employer, played by Kang-ho Song, one of Korea’s biggest stars, gets a dead daughter in return for being in the 1%. And as things go on there’s dead soldiers on both sides, and it’s just like Jesus Christ you people.
That’s how that spiral to violence comes about, but it isn’t like I Saw the Devil — there is an emotional connection, even if it’s as impersonal as the movie’s bare-bones approach to dialogue.
It was easy I think for critics at the time to see Sympathy less as the art-house thriller they now see it as, and more as the Miike-esque exploitation flick in this weird modern era where everything is visually-opulent and well-photographed. You have not only the obscene violence and torture and kinda strange sex, but don’t forget about that weird masturbation scene. If that’s dark humor then… yeah.
If you haven’t seen Sympathy yet, watch it first by yourself, and then spring it on your friends and loved ones one-by-one, so you know when the big hits happen and can gauge their reactions.