Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the absurd humor and abject violence of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Read the rest of our coverage here.
As any casual fan, the start of an education on the works of Park Chan-wook typically begins with Oldboy; the South Korean director’s breakthrough film in the United States. Consequently, audiences wanted to discover the films that came before. If Director Park is The Beatles, you could argue that Oldboy is his “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, but long before that he buttered up audiences with a sneaky banger in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (perhaps his “Love Me Do”?). This is a dark and depressing film, something the casual viewer should be prepared for. Still, Park is a fearless auteur; to discover his work is like witnessing a tornado. It’s beautiful to look at and can cause a whirlwind of emotional destruction.
If Joint Security Area was what put Park on the cinematic map (Park’s highest grossing picture), then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a retreat from that success, revealing someone who takes pleasure in human suffering. It’s a difficult movie to digest: it’s an incredibly nihilistic story (a theme that runs through many of Park’s works) but also a glimpse at the various sides of class warfare.
These themes are suffused throughout South Korean cinema — where the rich, the poor, the disabled, the working, the wealthy class all go to extreme lengths to survive or take care of the people they love.
With Sympathy, the focus is on two converging figures, one poor, one wealthy, both ending up in desperate situations. Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) and Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho) are two peas in a strange pod. Ryu is deaf, working at a steel mill, with a sister in need of a kidney transplant. When a trio of black market drug dealers take Ryu’s savings and his kidney, they leave him with few options and a nasty scar.
His girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) is a passionate political activist and concocts a plan to kidnap Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae), Dong-jin’s daughter, for a ransom to cover the transplant. The ransom arrives just before Ryu’s sister dies, and while burying his now-dead sister by a lake, his deafness leads to the accidental drowning death of Yu-sun, turning one tragedy into another.
It’s at this point that the story passes to Park’s revenge, in grief and shock, ignoring any guidance from police, and destined to exact revenge on his daughter’s kidnappers. This is not a traditional or singular path of revenge either, where excitement builds for our hero to win, but a conflicted journey.
If Joint Security Area was what put Park on the cinematic map … then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a retreat from that success.
It’s methodical and deliberate, as Park structures the story of two mad trains of emotion, step by step, sending the parties on a collision course along the same track. Ryu takes revenge on the organ dealers with a bat. Meanwhile, Dong-jin uses a device to electrocute Yeong-mi. The two sides will meet and decide their fates in the very lake where their loved ones’ bodies lay, but no act of revenge will bring peace to the two men.
The screenplay from Park and co-writers Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Jae-sun, and Lee Jong-yong is riddled with violent outbursts and persistent moral quandaries. But the major sense in Sympathy is sound, and the use and manipulation of it. Ryu’s deafness is a critical factor in the narrative, Park’s style, and the way he frames his scenes. Sounds or conversations are often out of frame from Ryu, but incredibly audible for the audience.
Ryu’s perverted neighbors mistake his sisters’ excruciating screams of pain as a moment of sexual pleasure. Dong-jin hears a radio station in the next room where the DJ is reading a confession from Ryu on-air. And then there’s the sound design of cicadas chirping, water splashing, and skin being punctured. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, sound is its own form of torture.
Sympathy fits into Park’s portfolio as an underappreciated work of art. The cinematography alone from Kim Byeong-il is impressive. You often see muted colors (or none at all) until a moment hits like a Jackson Pollock painting in our eye, with a splatter of bright red blood in the frame. However, it’s in Sympathy where Park reveals that he’s not about narrative cliches, but about weaving a rich narrative. There’s not a “twist” per se in Park’s style, but depth of narrative deception. Every character in a Park picture has multiple sides, and Sympathy is no exception.
The title — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance –– places the onus on the audience to decide: should we have sympathy for any of these characters? The answer is yes, but Park invites us to be an observer in the lives of complex characters. Earning our sympathy is a matter of who you are as a viewer. Park will not sugarcoat it for the audience. No matter how rich or poor, whatever cards life has dealt you, there’s no escape from the end all humans meet. The sympathy Park offers is for the lives these characters are born into: illness, disability, loss, drug addictions. Being unable to help a person in need.
Park Chan-wook would go on to make Oldboy one year later, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance would become a distant memory for anyone other than a die-hard fan. But this is what started his Vengeance trilogy and led the director down a path of films reflecting bleak brutality and honest tragedy. You may not love the end result. You will get no sympathy from Park himself. However, you will get a director that leaves you breathless, shocked, and awestruck. If Sympathy is your first taste of Park, you’ll wonder what exactly you’re going to see next.