Although it was with his 2000 release J.S.A.: Joint Security Area that Chan-wook Park made a name for himself in his native South Korea and 2003’s Oldboy that assured him a cult following internationally, for many in the west it was 2002’s Bokseneun naui geot (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) that first garnered serious attention. Having made waves with his earlier film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was the first of Park’s films to gain a DVD release in the UK and Ireland. This was a savvy move by the late Tartan Video as they capitalised on the rising interest in contemporary Asian cinema- a wave they largely helped create.
If Hideo Nakata’s Ringu first pulled eyes eastward, and Takashi Miike’s Audition seemingly dared those same eyes to flinch and look away, as the decade wore on there seemed a clear shift in focus from Japan to their neighbour, South Korea. In terms of production quality, J.S.A. was not alone; a blossoming domestic cinema industry consistently outperformed Hollywood in Korean theatres. With the massive success of J.S.A., Park was afforded free reign with his next film. The result is perhaps his finest achievement.
The plot, tightly wound but languidly paced, takes on a dualistic structure as the exploits of two conflicting protagonists are depicted. The initial protagonist is Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin), a green-haired deaf mute. Ryu works every shift he can at a local factory in order to save money for his sister, who is desperately in need of a kidney transplant. She must await a donation as she and her brother do not share the same blood type1. While waiting, they have to find the money to pay for the procedure. When Ryu loses his job, the first of many strokes of bad luck, he seeks the help of organ dealers. They rob him, not only of his savings, but also of a kidney, stealing away any chance of happiness when a suitable donor is unexpectedly found.
Needing money quickly, Ryu takes the advice of his anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Doo-na Bae) and together they kidnap a young girl, Yu-sun (Bo-bae Han). The plan is simple: her father is rich and will pay quickly, and the girl won’t even know she’s been taken. After all, such a transaction is, Yeong-mi argues, sound practice for helping to energise dormant capital. Scuppering these best-laid plans, Ryu’s sister discovers his plans and commits suicide, rendering the ransom money useless. In his grief and hindered by his deafness, Ryu’s attentiveness to Yu-sun lapses just long enough for the girl to drown.
With these elements in place, the film’s focus swaps to Yu-sun’s father, factory president Dong-jin Park (Kang-so Song), a man who has lost more than anyone knew. Coming out of a bitter divorce, Park maintains an air of financial well-being, but in actuality is reeling from economic developments that have left him struggling to defend the business he founded from a potential hostile take-over. When his only daughter is kidnapped, he is left with no option but to sell his remaining interest in the company. His reward for this last ditch effort is the death of his daughter. This final development spoils forever any chance of returning to a normal life. For both men, wronged in their own way, vengeance is the only recourse they can now envision.
It’s virtually impossible to explore the various facets of this film without revealing its many plot details. Park, who has played a role in writing all he’s brought to the screen, is among the very best in the industry at tying narrative structure to thematic content. Unfolding like a Euripidean tragedy, what is central to the film is the careful illumination of both sides of a single crime. Far from trying to administer blame, what is key is that desperation and unlucky coincidence fuel almost the entirety of Ryu’s actions, be it his physical handicaps, his sister’s health problems, his poverty or the series of misadventures that render his best efforts criminally unprofitable. Indeed the foundation of the plot is largely predicated on mistakes. What Park has crafted here could be termed an anti-narrative. It eschews the simple progression of decision to outcome for the more haphazard idea of each decision leading to a failure, which furthers the story in a way that none of the characters could foresee.
Tempering this precise construction, and lending breadth to what is undoubtedly a cripplingly bleak feature, is the director’s trademark vein of uneasy comedy. One of Park’s standout talents is his ability to inject humour into scenarios that seem fundamentally opposed to such a detail; shades of Japan’s ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano abound. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the humour found throughout is of greater importance than anywhere else in his career. Far from leavening the tone or diminishing the mounting tragedy, the comedy instead highlights the inherent absurdity of so much of human action and reminds us that it is this vulnerability that really makes us human.
Absurdity is a cruel but omnipresent element as Park provides us with a wealth of little details that colour our perception of the project as a whole. The downward arc each protagonist inevitably follows comes laced with the plea for each of us to move beyond base perception when applying judgements in our daily life. The film mirrors this with sly set-pieces such as a group of men2 living next door to Ryu who masturbate to the moans of his sister, thinking they’re the result of sexual ecstasy rather than of agony. The joke on top of that is that the deaf Ryu enjoys his ramen completely oblivious to both. Elsewhere Park incorporates repetition to convey connections between the two men, often to subtle comic effect, such as Dong-jin using a seatbelt to keep the ransom money safe just as Ryu will later ‘protect’ his already deceased sister by strapping her in. The result is a film that clearly understands the good in people even if it must also acknowledge their potential for destruction.
If there’s a downside, it does seem that the film requires a certain degree of accommodation from the audience. Park pushes buttons and hijacks tropes that can lead to confusion for those not familiar with his style. The marketing for the film, both in its native Korea and as it travelled westward under the auspices of Tartan and others, suggested that what we have here is a hardboiled, gritty revenge thriller. There’s some truth in that yet more in the idea that Park has specifically subverted that very format. The often extremely explicit depiction of violence certainly makes it easy to throw the film into a pile with various other ‘genre’ titles, but the dual-pronged nature of the narrative necessarily robs it of the cheap catharsis that is the stock and trade of the genre.
Talk of violence is, in may ways, overstated as the film only boasts a select few graphic sequences amidst a feature that runs just over the two hour mark. In the words of director Seung-wan Ryoo, “The audience thought the film was violent because it showed something they wanted to avoid.”34 The pacing and construction throughout often defy the basic logic of the genre; the kidnapping of Yu-sun is elided over completely whilst the ransom trade-off, usually an easy excuse for rapid crosscuts building tension as they track both parties, instead focuses mostly on Ryu’s sister and Yu-sun enjoying their time together at the apartment.
Criticisms of the film as being misanthropic, pessimistic and overly violent, are somewhat unwarranted, though it must be acknowledged that the film does venture into such territory. The main offender here is perhaps the depiction of the organ traffickers. They are integral to the plot but boast very little screen time, resulting in them often being touted as caricatures. If this is the case, then the sequence where Ryu, acting on the only impetus he has left, summarily slaughters them, does possess a cathartic ‘justice’ which the rest of the film works hard to deny. The criticism can be legitimately posited, but Park still manages to throw a spanner in the works with his presentation. They certainly wronged Ryu, but he is also transferring his own mistakes onto them, trying to make sense of the death of his sister and the young girl. In addition, they may be cruel and profit from suffering but in their final moments it’s revealed to the audience that they are a family too- the female overseer is the mother of the two men.
Although many might feel their deaths are warranted for their cruel injustices against Ryu and countless others, the moment of their death is counterpointed by the revelation that one of the these ‘monsters’ is simply called Chulseung by his dear mother. He has a name and he has people who care for him. Although Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance can’t spare the space to elaborate further it’s easy to imagine, with all that has gone before and all that will transpire afterwards, that a similarly unkind fate pushed this family to this most despicable of professions as pushed Ryu down his unfortunate path. Park has even suggested that the mother is a former doctor who lost her job because of a crippling morphine addiction3. Whatever back-story you might wish to instil, this detail finds fellowship with another of the film’s vignettes, that of a laid-off employee committing suicide with his family. Horrific outcomes can have such banal origins.
Likewise some other sequences seem to trip viewers up as they follow the unfolding events. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the autopsy of Yu-sun which some believe is attended by her own father. Such a reading would render the scene utterly egregious, although some mistakenly try to chalk it down to some manner of cultural difference that suggests Koreans might actually be allowed, and indeed want, to attend their own daughter’s post-mortem5. Given Park’s advanced structuring it becomes clear with further reflection that the sequence is intended as a morbid fantasy. Importantly, we never see the father and corpse in the same room, and the procedure is outlined through the use of sound and Dong-jin’s facial reactions. His presence in the autopsy room links him only in place rather than time with the procedure.
We might take precedence from a more obviously fantastical scene where he is visited by his soaking wet, recently deceased daughter. In this framework the autopsy sequence is not a cold-hearted leap of fancy, but rather an interesting emotional stepping stone that later finds repetition as Dong-jin, growing ever more callous, finds time to yawn at the thought of Ryu’s sister’s post-mortem.
Another question that arises is the role of the cerebral palsy sufferer who bothers Ryu as he tries to bury his sister. Deemed insensitive by some, the portrayal6 is far more than a throwaway caricature and plays back into the recurring idea of looking beyond initial perceptions. It is this character who reveals the make and registration number of Ryu’s car to Dong-jin, who later chides the police for never bothering to question the man, remarking that, “He is handicapped, not stupid.”
Intrinsic to the success of Park’s design, delicately balanced between high tragedy and genre thrills, is the superb contribution of the entire cast. We can only be grateful for Park’s insistence as it took four attempts before Kang-ho Song took on the role of President Park. Likewise, the wordless performance of Ha-kyun Shin as Ryu suggests a simplicity and intrinsic honesty that is tested to the breaking point. Elsewhere Doon-na Bae’s energy and personability contrasts sharply with her character’s obvious failings. She is an object of destruction but she could never realise just what form that would take until it’s already far too late. The pacing and framing of the film gives great help to the actors to flesh out their performances. Unlike more basic genre cinema that is more concerned with event and spectacle, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance often nestles into long, uninterrupted conversations, showcasing interaction between one or more of the film’s many denizens. No better example of this can be found than the single, static shot of Dong-jin, dumbfounded and obscured by the outside of the car in which he sits, trying to talk to a detective about his daughter’s death. Meanwhile the police officer, obviously familiar with this sort of thing, can’t offer Park any genuine consolation. There’s certainly no feel, as might be expected in a more typical genre film, of any of these actors simply collecting a paycheque.
Also of note, and a mainstay of all of Park’s post- Simpan features, are the exquisite production values throughout. What perhaps first caught the attention of western audiences when modern Korean cinema began to disseminate around the world was the superb quality they maintained. Like his prior feature J.S.A., Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance boasts a clarity of image and a quality of design that is indistinguishable from the multi-million dollar productions of Hollywood. Boasting a palette that favours green, a colour scheme that Park says is unusual in Korean cinema3, the film’s world moves between the bright and sunny and, in times of crisis, steely cold and muted- the latter bringing to mind Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï. It’s impressive when looking at the depth of sorrow and adversity in the film that Park refrains almost entirely from shooting at night and prefers instead to let the film unfold largely during the day. The awful truth is that the tragedies that can destroy man don’t need to hide in shadows.
Elsewhere Park’s sound design is highly advanced and no doubt reveals the director as a follower of Hitchcock. Subjective audio, often used to immerse us in Ryu’s world, heightens sympathy for the character as we watch his disability inevitably quicken his downfall. Brightening proceedings, Ryu’s deafness also allows Park to visually orient subtitles into the frame as he has animated discussions with his girlfriend. Rarely staying at the bottom of the screen, the captions move and embellish the visual, suggesting a genuine and playful relationship. Finally we have the experimental music of The Uhuhboo Project. Though generally left aurally unaccompanied, the film uses the harsh tones of the Korean group’s music to great effect; the final credits rolling to something akin to a Shinto death chant all the while mingling with the final death groans of one of the main characters as their pain lingers on even as the film ends.
Though certainly open to critique, it’s easy to cite this as Park’s masterpiece. While it may be less ornate and immediately intriguing than the more popular Oldboy, it is also more rewarding in its various nuances. The violence and some of the other representational elements outlined previously may stagger viewers, but Park’s overall intent and carefully composed structure offer us one of cinema’s finest explorations of violence and its cost. If the cinema of Robert Bresson instilled in audiences the price of tears, then Chan-wook Park makes us fully confront the cost of blood.
1 Blood type B. As perhaps something of an in-joke in Park’s next film, Oldboy, they’ve moved onto blood type AB.
2 As a point of interest these four men are all directors of short films which Chan-wook Park admires and which mark them out as up and coming talents in Korean cinema. They’re not alone as throughout the film Park calls in many other allies for cameo roles; the demented old man who removes his pants, a pessimistic doctor and the delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant being other examples.
3 As stated on the audio commentary provided with various editions of the film.
4 Unless you happen to be Eli Roth, ironically one of the film’s foremost supporters. He claims, in a small essay he contributed to the recent Tartan Palisades Blu-Ray release, that his film Hostel was made as direct response to seeing this film, “the rebirth of modern cinema.” Although he states a case for the film creating highly sympathetic characters if Hostel is anything to go by Roth’s primary inspiration is that high violence is pretty awesome with a particular emphasis on slashed Achilles’ tendons.
5 Such thinking inadvertently brings to mind the horrifyingly absurd thinking of General Westmoreland as he is documented stating, in Peter Davis’ pivotal 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds that, “The Oriental does not put the same high price on life that the west does. Life is plentiful and cheap there. Life is not important.”
6 An early role for the popular Korean star Seung-beom Ryu, brother of director Seung-wan Ryoo who also gets a cameo. According to Park the role was original intended for an actor who actually suffered from cerebral palsy but they had to give up on that idea as the necessity for the character to enter water was simply too dangerous for someone dealing with the condition.