REVIEW OF SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCEJanuary 13th, 2010 by P Chen
2002, directed by Park Chan-Wook.
Often referred to as the first movie in the revenge trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (hereafter SMV) is director Park’s first attempt at examining revenge as a motif. The film does not address the moral, psychological, and social complexities of revenge and struggles of the characters involved. Those emerge in his later films. The principle of revenge in SMV might be aptly characterized as lex talionis, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. That’s what the movie is about:: pure, unadulterated revenge for an injustice done. Even cannibalism finds its way into the narrative as an act of vengeance. For fans who have enjoyed other revenge-oriented films such as Kill Bill, SMV’s treatment of revenge is simply delicious.
The injustice that starts the revenge cycle is both natural and artificiall: Cha Young-Mi, the sister of the primary character (Ryu), needs a kidney transplant, and he needs to come up with $10,000. He decides to sell his kidney, only to be duped by con artists: they steal his kidney, and he loses the money for his sister’s operation. Ryu wants revenge; his sister realizes her role in the sequence of events and exacts revenge (of sorts); Boss Park avenges his daughter who accidentally dies during the kidnapping-for-ransom ploy; Cha Young-Mi’s colleagues exact revenge upon Boss Park. The wheels of revenge turn round and round with the aforementioned characters.
The fates of the characters involved in the story are implicitly connoted in the first twelve minutes of the film, when Cha Young-Mi writes a judgment against the person who has yet to harm her; the primary character (Ryu) unwittingly encounters his swindlers while he is in a most vulnerable and defenseless state, literally holding his manhood in his hand. Boss Park’s former employee demands his job back for years of faithful service. Boss Park’s hand is slashed as a sign of things to come.
Director Park’s use of sound is particularly acute in this film. The characters, both primary and secondary, learn about the lives of others through background noise that is brought into the foreground. This audio technique thus creates a sense of anxiety and uneasiness about the peace and tranquility of a scene, and an anticipation in the viewer who knows something is about to happen but is left unsure. For example, Ryu successfully returns with the money in hand; the scene is a happy one; he is playful; the kidnapping victim is happy. Yet, the pervasive sound of water running over a basin reverberates across the ears of the viewer.
One relationship that has not been fully explored is an intra-familial one: that between Ryu and his sister. Although the film shows them sleeping on the same floor, this is not necessarily indicative of any sexual interest. Sleeping in the same room, under the same blanket is normative Korean practice for those who are poor. However, there are other moments when the director wants us to think otherwise. Although Ryu can’t hear his upstairs neighbors having sex, his sister can: she can’t sleep. She can’t sleep so Ruy can’t sleep. When Ryu is giving his sister a sponge bath, the sister’s playful laughter as Ryu approaches sensitive areas leads the viewer to at least entertain the idea of incestuous sexual relations. In this vein, director Park’s use of siblings and family members closely mirror’s Kafka’s novels where there is an ambiguous relationship between the male protagonist and his sister. Viewers are left to wonder.
Viewers are not left to wonder about the primal and visceral nature of revenge.