SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002)
The first instalment of the Vengeance Trilogy is habitually startling and repeatedly horrific when a laid-off factory worker plots a kidnapping to fund his sister’s kidney transplant
Some audiences dislike the notion of a film filled with unlikeable characters. This is a naïve view of both cinema and human nature, but such viewers are well served knowing that the protagonists here are a difficult blend.
You might find yourself cheering a despicable act or being horrified by a potentially just one. Or simply not knowing how to feel. The film alienates you and draws you closer too. The film’s title is baiting you to feel sympathy, but are you doing the right thing? The original title of the film, Vengeance Is Mine, offers lighter direction on how to feel.
Regardless of the view of the characters, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is thematically rich, unpacking loss, desperation, class, betrayal, guilt, and of course revenge.
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun – Joint Security Area, Save the Green Planet!) is a deaf-mute working in a factory while his terminally ill sister needs a kidney transplant.
After Ryu loses his job, he contacts black market organ dealers. Not a donor match himself, he offers to exchange his kidney with additional cash for a kidney suitable for his sister. However, the dealers disappear with Ryu's kidney and his money.
To raise the funds for a kidney, his girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona – The Host, A Girl at My Door) suggests they kidnap the daughter of the executive that fired him.
Deciding that is too obvious, they kidnap the daughter of his former boss’ friend, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho – Memories of Murder, The Host, Parasite), an equally rich president of a manufacturing company.
A ransom is demanded, but circumstances escalate into dire outcomes when Ryu’s sister discovers their plan and it rapidly starts to fall apart.
As with all of the trilogy, there is plenty of winch-inducing violence and gruesome themes. There is a depravity that pulls you in, or more accurately pulls you down, throughout Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
It is a film filled with scheming, but these are really the actions of desperation, or the unavoidable lure and perceived necessity of fulfilling revenge.
At stages the film demands close attention. Director Park pays tight homage to the cinematic principle of ‘show don’t tell’, jumping the story forward in the next scene and allowing you to colour in the detail.
There is also a stark central character switch, as we move from following Ryu’s silent determination to save his sister to Dong-jin's search for his daughter.
There is plenty of Director Park mastery throughout, the stylish shots, the gory violence that is somehow still poetic and the twists of fortune which linger in every new scene.
Sometimes seen as the weak link in the Vengeance Trilogy, this is an utterly superb piece of film in its own right, telling you everything you need to know about the brilliance of the series and its filmmaker. It also does a superb job of setting the tone for the trilogy's other two offerings.