I sat and watched Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and when it was over I sat a while longer and just stared into space.Here is a movie about some of the most profoundly debased things people can do to each other in the name of love, and its most astonishing attribute is that we do not feel anger for the perpetrators, but instead a terrible sadness.
What draws me into movies like this? For some reason I have an affinity for stories that do not leave room for false hope, that show everything without having to explain anything. There's no interpretation needed for a movie like this, no handholding or finger-pointing; everything required is right there in front of you. Like STAR 80 or Naked or Salò, it's impossible to look away from this even when the most terrible things are taking place onscreen.
I doubt seriously I can recommend this film to everyone. The movie begins on a note of unfocused dread and ends in abject, unblinking horror, and there is a scene near the end when I asked myself in all seriousness if I wanted to keep watching. And yet I stuck with it, because director and screenwriter Chan-wook Park (of the outstanding JSA) has managed to show how all of this comes out of his characters without seeming forced or cheap.
Sympathy begins simply enough, with a brother and sister. The brother, Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin, of JSA and Guns and Talks), is a deaf-mute who works in a metal factory. Every day he shuffles along with his co-workers, oblivious to the din around him but just as beaten down by its routine. He's socked away money so that his sister (Ji-Eun Lim) can have a kidney transplant. He cannot donate one of his own because his tissue type is not compatible with hers, and a doctor spells this out in painful, insulting detail to him. "She needs type B! B, you understand?" he barks at Ryu, spelling the letters in the air with his fingers.
Ryu has a girlfriend, a political type who hands out leaflets on streetcorners and who apparently met him when she faked being deaf to get on a government deferment. They seem happy together, but there's a pushy, mercenary edge to her behavior that is quite at odds with Ryu's nature. On the way home to her place, he stops to help a bum pull his pants back up; later, he helps a total stranger with her insulin shot — or is it heroin? The movie does not say, and indeed it is scarcely relevant. All we need to know is summed up by the fact that he is willing to do this to help someone else, which in turn sets up the depth of his need to help his sister.
What's most startling about these early scenes is how well they telegraph the sense of something being fundamentally wrong without ever spelling it out. These people are quite simply doomed, the movie seems to be saying, and it does this through very specific camera, editing and especially sound techniques. The film's style is stark and direct so that nothing gets in the way. The camera only moves when needed; the edits are more to compress time dramatically than anything else (although there is a virtuoso piece of parallel editing late in the movie that intercuts two phone calls of similar intent and importance). The soundtrack crawls with ambient audio; whenever we're in someone's apartment, we also hear the noises from next door, and the net effect is one of eavesdropping, not merely witnessing.
The first hints of the plot begin to come together. Ryu loses his job. A group of organ-leggers meet Ryu and offer him a swap: a compatible kidney for one of his own, and 10 million won (Ryu's severance pay). Not surprisingly, they rip him off and leave him naked and helpless in an abandoned building. (In a measure of the movie's willingness to go to extremes, it's a building so abandoned it doesn't even have walls anymore.) His girlfriend, livid, hatches a plan with him to kidnap the daughter of a friend of his former boss and ransom her. "We're not going to be the typical kidnappers," she affirms. He nods.
So much of the film's impact depends on not ruining its revelations, so from here on out I must tread lightly. The kidnapping does in fact take place, but then there is a horrific and completely unexpected complication — unexpected on the part of everyone, including the audience — that forces Ryu to do some improvising. Then there's another horrendous mistake, and then the film begins to descend from one circle of hell into the next with no end in sight.
Right around this time we are also introduced to the father of the girl, Mr. Park (Kang-ho Song, so memorable from JSA and Shiri). He's not a bad guy, and in one of the first scenes with him, we see that he's unable to harbor a grudge even against a former layoff who slashes himself up in front of him in despair. But when his daughter vanishes, he starts to disintegrate. Everything else in his life also disappears with her — his job, his home (he sells both of them to finance a private investigator), his sense of restraint, his scruples, his morals. They're all to be traded in. What he does not know is that the man he is looking for is in exactly the same position and is every bit as despondent.
The film finds so many ways, big and small, to show how cruelty is expressed. At one point Ryu takes a picture of the girl to include with the ransom note. Before doing this, however, he gets her into a petty argument over a necklace so that she will be crying in the picture. Why? Because a crying girl in a kidnap photo is more effective than a smiling one (and indeed we see other photos not included with the note that show her having a grand time). Ryu does these things clumsily, gracelessly, because he has no experience at being cruel, and that makes it all the more appalling.
I mentioned earlier that there is a scene where I nearly quit the film. In it, Park finds Ryu's girlfriend and tortures her into telling him what happened by clipping electrodes to her ears. Then the doorbell rings; it's a delivery man with a noodle bowl that the girl ordered before. He eats the whole thing, barely realizing that the bottom of the tray is becoming soaked with her urine. The scene is is played mostly off of Park, and there is a cutaway to him that is the most chilling thing in the movie — him sitting on the floor, looking at a picture of his daughter with a completely blank expression on his face. Everything in his life that mattered before has simply been vacated for this. Equally ghastly is a scene where Ryu confronts the kidney thieves once again, which is broken off at a strategic moment rather than allowed to linger on pointlessly — making it, in a way, all the more horrible.
There are a few moments near the end of the movie that border on the absurd — one involving a moment of coincidence in an elevator that is a little too neat and another involving a ridiculous booby trap that was phoned in from countless (inferior) action movies. But because the movie's focus remains resolutely on its characters, it never derails — no, not even at the end, which manages to be both ironic and excruciatingly painful.
A lot of the film's ambitions can be summed up in its title — not forgiveness, but sympathy, and indeed the way things are set up in the film are so fair, so cruelly fair, in fact, that in the end it's impossible to hate them for what they do. They may not be redeemed, but part of the movie's argument seems to be that redemption is, heartbreakingly, never going to even enter the picture for some people. It may seem strange for me to say that this unrelentingly cruel and downbeat film is easily one of the best movies I will see all this year, but masterpieces can take many forms. This one happens to be a knife into the heart.