While awaiting the arrival of the Old Boy DVD (any day now) Filmbrain thought he would re-visit Park Chan-wook's previous film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which, like Old Boy, is a brutal tale of revenge and retribution.
Ryu is a deaf young man with green hair, a sympathetic face, and an ill sister who is in desperate need of a kidney. Their blood types don't match, so he is unable to donate one of his own. Desperate, he turns to the illegal organ market and gets caught up in a scam that is a twisted version of the infamous urban legend -- he agrees to donate a kidney plus ten million won (~$8500) in exchange for a kidney for his sister. He awakens in a deserted building site, nude, lacking one kidney, with the organ dealers nowhere to be found. As fate would have it, a legitimate donor is found, but Ryu no longer has any money to pay for the operation. His anti-capitalist, anti-liberal revolutionary girlfriend concocts a scheme by which they will kidnap the daughter of a rich businessman (Ryu's former boss, Dong-jin) and demand a ransom. Nothing goes as planned (does it ever?) and the remainder of the film deals with multiple characters seeking revenge.
While the film is indeed violent, the most disturbing element is that it lacks any moral center. Whereas one could view Ryu as a victim, his actions throughout the film don't really reflect that tag. The solutions he and his girlfriend come up with are no better than the cold-hearted behavior of Dong-jin, who easily fires dedicated, old, long-term employees simply because he's experiencing financial hardship (his wife has left him). While we feel a certain sympathy for these characters (as the title commands us to) their actions make it very hard for us to get behind them, as it were. By the film's end, vengeance has been served (multiple times) but nothing has changed. Nobody walks away better off, happy, content or even satisfied. There's no liberal-humanist perspective at all.
There's an interesting anti-capitalist thread running throughout the film. The director focuses on the social differences between Ryu, who works in a factory under brutal conditions, and Dong-jin, with his limo, servants, and mansion. When both are confronted with seemingly insurmountable difficulties, it is poor Ryu who resorts to self-sacrifice, whereas Dong-jin solves his problems by destroying the life of others (through firings). That Ryu can neither hear nor speak is probably symbolic of how the lower classes are voiceless in matters political/economical/social. Then there is Ryu's girlfriend, the revolutionary who condemns capitalism, liberalism, and America, and speaks of ideals like universal health-care for all. Her fate, along with subsequent actions resulting from it, can also be viewed as political allegory -- but no spoilers here!
In the end, the two men, rich and poor, are equal in their quests for vengeance -- they both resort to the basest human behavior by choosing violence as a solution -- something that, in a twisted way, unites us all.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the first in a projected trilogy on revenge. (The second film, Old Boy, is said to be more precise in its presentation of the vengeance theme, but even more brutal.) At Cannes on Saturday, Park said the following regarding his interest in this theme:
“I think that I make pessimistic films because I'm far too optimistic in daily life.”
Filmbrain highly recommends Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, even though he felt pretty miserable after watching it. He can only wonder how Old Boy will make him feel. . .