Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie Review - "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance"

This review is part 2 in my Park Chan-Wook retrospective.

After the runaway success of "JSA: Joint Security Area" in 2000, Park Chan-Wook was given absolute freedom to make the movie of his dreams. Few expected anything as bleak and horrifying as "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance". Audiences stayed away in droves. Even among critics, this has proven to be Park's most divisive work: Many believe it to be his best. Just as many describe it as audience punishing misery-porn. As for me, it's my third favorite film of all time, and I take my rankings very seriously.

The cliche is that Park's films (and this one in particular) are "for those with strong stomachs", and that might lead you to expect a work of unbearable cruelty. Yet for audiences on the same wavelength as the director, it's not cruelty, it's tragedy. In a tragedy, bad things happen for a reason. The audience can actually gain some kind of understanding from the events. Characters are in some sense responsible for their fates, which stem from their own fatal flaws, or at least poor decisions.

Of course, Park stacks the deck against his characters from the beginning. After analysing the Korean war with "JSA", he uses "Mr Vengeance" to tackle a more uncomfortable topic: Korean society. Specifically he argues that Koreans don't care a damn about anybody not in what they consider their own social group or clan. Characters demonize The Other constantly, ignoring the plight of their fellow humans while paradoxically cursing the unfeeling world in which they live. The city of Seoul is seen as vast, inhuman, and uncaring, with static long shots of massive buildings dwarfing the characters we are so invested in. Each of those characters is human and has a heart, but they tend to keep it to themselves.

The narrative initially centers around Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute factory worker taking care of his dying sister.  His sister is in need of a kidney transplant, and on a seemingly eternal waiting list. Laid off from his job, desperate to help his sister, Ryu contacts his friendly neighborhood organ thieves (Who helpfully plaster "Need Organs?" flyers on mens room walls in a characteristically dark joke). Sadly, they screw Ryu over and leave him broke, naked and minus a kidney in an abandoned warehouse. Even worse, a donor suddenly appears, which would be great if Ryu weren't suddenly penniless.

Ryu's girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doo-na, recently seen in "Cloud Atlas") is a radical leftist, who half-heartedly hands out flyers for a terrorist group that may or may not actually exist. She claims that the capitalist system is to blame for Ryu's troubles, specifically the executive who laid him off. She proposes they kidnap the executive's kid for ransom. In her mind, this is simple wealth redistribution, nothing will happen to the kid, and in the end the parents will probably love their child more afterwards. Ryu argues that as a recently laid-off employee, he'd be the first person they'd suspect. So they kidnap another executive's kid instead, because they're all fatcats after all.

Anyone who's seen a movie before can tell that this will go spectacularly wrong, and that the kid will die. What isn't expected is the film's shift of protagonist to the child's bereaved father. Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, established here as a Park regular) is not the fatcat they assumed him to be. In fact he's nearly broke, leads a failling business, and is divorced from his wife. The death of his daughter is the straw that breaks him. Overcome by misery, and driven by a need to extract revenge, he seeks out those responsible for his daughter's death.

The brilliance of this plot is that nobody is innocent. By presenting Korean society as an uncaring agent of chaos, every character can plausibly claim that somebody else is responsible for their misery. Yet every one of them reaches at least one point where they are faced with a choice between pursuing vengeance and just walking away. None choose correctly. Thus begins an ever descending vortex of horror that eventually consumes everyone.

Park's direction is a stylistic breakthrough. This is the first film of his that is clearly the work of an auteur, though his later films would be much less detached and distant. Long takes and long shots abound, without the hyperactive flourishes that would appear in "Oldboy". "Mr Vengeance" does introduce viewers to Park's taste for particularly queasy acts of violence in grand fashion, peaking with one character being stabbed in the neck, falling to the ground and losing control of their bowels. For the most part, the director doesn't show more than is necessary, letting off-camera screaming and horrifying reaction shots do the talking. Though what is seen is plenty, not flinching when displaying the messy after-effects of violence and trauma.

Park's best directorial trick is a fixation on cutting between close ups and long shots to contrast the emotional turmoil of his characters with the cosmic insignificance of what they're going through. The scene where Dong-jin first sees his dead daughter at a crime scene is shot from so far back that you can see the entire investigation happening at once.  Only in a tiny part of the frame, if you're really looking, can you see Dong-jin screaming and weeping in agony. His screams are distant enough to become ambient noise, until Park brutally cuts to a close-up of his tear strewn face, the wailing suddenly overtaking the entire soundtrack before cutting out as the long shot resumes.

It's this focus on the emotional consequences of violence that elevates "Mr Vengeance" above mere brutality. Every death is mourned by somebody, and in the end, we aren't rooting for anyone to win, just for everyone to go home and move on. Yet the plot is so intricate and fascinating that it's a certain kind of pleasure just to watch it unwind. The entire film keeps the audience in a loop of thinking "Good god, that's horrifying! Then what happened?!?"

While "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" will never play well for multiplex audiences, I believe that it is Park's most accomplished work to date. His style has continued to evolve in future efforts, but like Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (similarly the result of young talent given infinite resources), I don't believe Park could ever make a movie like this that was better than this. As depressing as it is, it's compulsively watchable, and the screenplay is a thing of beauty.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)


  1. What's your opinion on Park's stated intention to slowly leech the colour out of the film until it finished in black-and-white? Dodged bullet or tragic missed opportunity?

    I'm definitely in the latter category, and being aware of it has always nagged at me a little when rewatching the film.

    1. To be honest, I'm glad he didn't actually do that. I've seen the "Fade to Black and White" version of Lady Vengeance where he put that idea into practice and I wasn't a fan. While it's intellectually interesting, Park just has a natural way with color that I don't think works in black and white. I immediately think of the scene near the end of "Mr Vengeance" where a character is splashed with water flecked with blood. I doubt that (or the rest of the movie) would have benefitted from a shift to monochrome.

      I'll tackle Lady Vengeance next week, but I think that film's gradually shifting color pallette accomplished the same effect without requiring an actual shift to black and white.

    2. I agree that it's absolutely a lousy fit for Lady Vengeance (in theory - the DVD I got doesn't actually feature that version), which is a much more colourful film and maintains a considerably lighter tone throughout.

      That said, I honestly don't remember any striking use of colour in Mr. Vengeance, given that it was already pretty muted to start with. Sounds like the flimsy excuse to rewatch I was looking for.

  2. You nailed it about the platitude that Park's films are for "those with strong stomachs". Cathartic is a fairer assessment.