Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Written: Lee Jae-soon, Lee Jong-yong,
Country: South Korea
Visually impressive, part one of “The Vengeance Trilogy” is often overlooked. While “Oldboy” gained international acclaim, both “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” were left as simply “the other two of the trilogy.” I am also a fan of “Oldboy,” and think it is the best of three; but “the other two” are really worth taking a look at too.
The movie starts with an introduction to the main characters, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) and his sister. She is ill and needs a kidney transplant, but it cannot be from her brother as they have different blood types. Ryu works in a factory to gather money for the surgery, and making his mission even more difficult, he is a deaf-mute. Quite soon he gets laid off, and Ryu contacts black market organ dealers. He gives all his savings and his own kidney for a kidney with the matching blood type. As this director likes to put his characters into absurd and desperate situations, Ryu ends up being left naked, without money or the promised kidney. Adding to the desperate situation, the hospital finds a matching donor for his sister, but he needs the money that he lost to the organ dealers to pay for the transplant. Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend, Yeong-mi (Bae Doona) suggests a way out – to execute a “good kidnapping.” They would kidnap the daughter of the factory owner who laid-off Ryu. They would not harm her, just collect the ransom and give her back. It is a “good kidnapping” since nobody will get hurt, the parents will love the daughter even more after the ordeal, and Ryu gets the money to save his sister’s life. Everyone should be happy in the end. However, reality proves not to be so easy or full of “happy-endings” after all. (spoilers) First, Ryu puts the kidnapped girl into his sister’s care, who thinks they are babysitting the girl. When she finds out the truth of the situation, she commits suicide, not wanting to be a burden. Grieving, Ryu goes to their beloved place at a waterfront and buries her there. He also takes the little girl with him, as he is planning to bring her back to her parents. However, playing near the river, she falls in and drowns. Ryu could not hear her shouts for help. The girl’s father, Dong-jin, sets out to find the killers of his daughter and avenge her. One absurd mistake after another leads to a destructive spiral of events. The originally good intentions lead to catastrophe, and prove there is no such thing as “good kidnapping.”
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is an unusual movie. It could be classified as absurd comedy, if not for the tragedy and violence. In a way, it is a film about class struggle. On one side we see factory workers, people living on the edge of poverty, desperate and struggling. We can sympathize with Ryu, who just wants to save his sister’s life. We can also see why Ryu’s girlfriend is urging him to “fight the system” which is seemingly destroying people’s lives. On the other side, there are rich business owners with private cars and big houses. We can also sympathize with them though. When Dong-jin loses his daughter, he is a grieving father seeking justice. He feels guilty for having been busy and neglecting family life, especially as he remembers the time his daughter asked him to teach her to swim. The director does not give a preference to either side. He sympathizes with both sides, but he also mocks them both. Yeong-mi’s anarchism is portrayed in a funny way, and she keeps printing pink leaflets with anarchist slogans on them. Her and Ryu’s amateur kidnapping act, their “fight against the man,” starts a horrible chain of events. Each side has absolute lack of human empathy for the other– a father has to watch autopsy of his daughter while crying, but no one talks to him. There are also plastic emotions during cremations – all examples of a society that forgot how to care about one another. The rich modern lifestyle looks more isolated and fake than happy or fulfilling. The movie is saying – do not be jealous of the other side, the grass is not greener there.
I am not sure if it is fair to extend this interpretation to the relations between South and North Korea. This film came right after Park Chan-wook’s major success, “Joint Security Area,” about the DMZ. “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” could be seen as an effort to get both sides to be more sympathetic and understanding about each other. In the end, Dong-jin says to Ryu:
I understand you are a good guy. You know why I have to kill you right?
We want to shout, “No, wait! It was all a crazy mistake. You don’t have to kill him.” I wonder if that was ultimately the intended message of the “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”
“There is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose” (Dead Can Dance)