Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

(heavy spoilers)

Recently my editor at Rebeller asked me to do a column on Park Chan-wook’s so called “Vengeance Trilogy.” I had seen and reviewed OLDBOY long ago, but somehow never got to SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and LADY VENGEANCE. I’m glad I watched them, and I thought they would be worth delving into further. That was a good column, but I’m officially reviewing them for posterity now.

In case you, like me, managed to hear 18 years worth of praise for MR. VENGEANCE without actually finding out what it was about, here goes. It’s the story of Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun, THE VILLAINESS), a deaf and mute young man who dropped out of art school to work at a factory because his sister (Im Ji-eun) needs a kidney transplant. He’s not a match, but he’s saving up his money in case they find a suitable donor. He’s able to narrate the story through letters he sends to a DJ to read on the air, and he’ll sit with his sister as she listens to the broadcasts.

They live together in a small, shitty apartment with thin walls, though that part doesn’t effect him. One of the most perverse illustrations of the ugliness of this world is the scene where four young men who live next door frantically masturbate to the moaning they hear through the wall, presumably thinking it’s sex noises, but the camera pans through the wall to show that it’s Ryu’s sister buckled over and moaning in agony from her illness. Ryu doesn’t know either, because he’s not facing her direction. All these people so close together, unaware of each other’s struggles.

Ryu has a much more animated girlfriend named Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona, THE HOST, CLOUD ATLAS, JUPITER ASCENDING) who has a little bit nicer apartment with a mannequin and a nice book collection and who spends some of her time passing out flyers for her anarchist collective. She brings some laughs to the movie and also will come up with the idea that gets a bunch of people killed.

There’s a long scene of Ryu working his hellish job at the factory, one of many that heavily emphasize the ambient sounds as if to make sure we remember what he’s missing out on. But then he gets laid off, so he gets desperate. He comes up with a plan to bring all the money he’s saved up to a black market organ dealer and pay them to trade his kidney for one of the right blood type.

The transaction goes down at one of the great skeezy locations in modern cinema, a makeshift doctor’s office with a few random medical posters on the wall, set up in an office building so worn down that I thought for a while it was a parking garage. It turns out they are not very professional; they take his kidney and money, give him nothing back, and pack up their stuff and leave.

So then, of course, the licensed doctors find a donor, and Ryu is out the exact amount of money he owes them for it. Yeong-mi slaps the shit out of him when she founds out what he did. But then she suggests her real reasonable, nothing to worry about plan: kidnap the daughter of that asshole who fired you from the factory. He’s rich, he’ll pay a ransom. Hell, when they get her back they’ll be so happy it will bring the family together! You’ll arguably be doing them a favor! (That’s really one of her justifications.)

In a savage bit of just-how-fucked-up-is-the-world satire, when they go to do the kidnapping there’s another desperate laid off factory worker already confronting the boss, who ends up standing in the middle of the street stabbing himself in protest. They decide that Ryu, being an ex-employee himself, will be interviewed by the police about this, so just to be safe they switch it up and kidnap Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae), daughter of a different rich manufacturing company president they see with the ex-boss.

Because they’re not trying to be evil, they convince the little girl that her dad asked them to take care of her, and she seems to be having a good time hanging out with them. They have a hard time figuring out how to make her cry for long enough to take a ransom photo. And they get Ryu’s sister to babysit her without telling her she’s an abductee, which in my opinion is unethical or at least impolite.

If this was a Coen brothers movie the plan would go horribly wrong, possibly in a funny way, possibly in a fucked up way. This is South Korean cinema, so – if I can make a generalization based on my limited sampling of their wares – it goes wrong in a very fucked up way that SPOILER leaves both the innocent sister and child dead, buried under some rocks in a riverbed.

The story slowly shifts to show the perspective of Yu-sun’s dad Park Dong-jin (Korean cinema superstar Song Kang-ho, THE HOST, SNOWPIERCER, PARASITE), who I lean toward believing is the titleistical Mr. Vengeance. But Ryu gets some vengeance of his own: he tracks down the new headquarters of the organ dealers who ripped him off, preventing him from getting a kidney and leading to the catastrophic kidnapping plot, and he slaughters them in shocking ways that they’re completely unprepared for. It has a bit of a bloody kick to it, sure, but it’s not the same cool-action-scene vibe of OLDBOY’s famous hallway hammer fight. It’s more of a “oh fuck, this is a mess” kind of feel to me.

One of my favorite little touches in the movie is when Yeong-mi stakes out the organ dealers and tries to give them some of her anarchy flyers, spouting slogans like “Drive out American products.” Then it cuts to one of the dealers at Baskin-Robbins buying an ice cream cake. He dumps it in the street and uses the cooling box to transport a kidney. How are you gonna drive out 31 Flavors when people need kidney boxes?

Another good irony is that the investigator President Park hires to find the kidnappers (Lee Dae-yeon, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS) needs the same amount of money as Ryu, 10 million won, for an operation for his son. He does not go the kidnapping route, as far as we see. But what the hell is he gonna do?

I always love the catharsis of a fun revenge story, but of course in real life getting violent revenge is wrong and ugly and probly doesn’t feel good, and (if I can make one more generalization) some of the South Korean directors are great at illustrating this fact of life in deeply upsetting and stomach-churning ways. It’s so easy to understand President Park’s rage against the at-first-unknown-to-him fuckups who accidentally, stupidly killed his daughter. But even if we didn’t come into this story from the point-of-view of the dipshits he’s after, even if we didn’t know their intentions or the desperation to save a life that inspired the crime, it would be hard to take the scene where he electroshock tortures Yeong-mi, ostensibly to find out where Ryu is, but surely with some sadistic vengefulness behind it. When he put the sheet over her head I thought he was starting to feel disgusted by himself, but then he seems unfazed by the puddle of urine on the floor.

By the time he gets to Ryu he seems to have… you know, sympathy for him, but feels like he must go through with his plan anyway. And he hopes Ryu understands.

If you’ve seen it you remember the surprise turn of events, the people who show up to execute another revenge killing. I loved that ending not only for the initial shock of not knowing why they’re doing this, and finding out at the same time he does, but of the way it changes our understanding of Yeong-mi. We knew her remorse for what happened to Yu-sun was sincere, but when she told him that she was the leader of a terrorist group and that if she died they would come kill him, I assumed (like he did) that it was a pathetic lie to get him to let her go. Since we now know she was telling the truth, it seems she was genuinely trying to save his life by warning him. Maybe that’s the sympathy for Mr. Vengeance?

As I mentioned in the column, South Korea switched to single-payer healthcare two years after this movie came out. (I’m not giving the movie credit – it was considered a flop at the time.) I love the matter-of-fact savagery of the world it depicts, where by all means Ryu should be making beautiful paintings, but the bad luck of his sister’s sickness and him not being a match takes him away from his dream, and then into a despicable medical underworld, into crime and then murder. It’s an operatic take on it, sure, but it reflects our current reality of a system that prioritizes corporate profit over human life and health, with horrible consequences. It seems evident to me we need to

1) build a society that protects and cares for everybody regardless of money

2) try to refrain from getting violent revenge on each other

The rumors were true. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is a fuckin great movie. It explores familiar themes but without following any template I’ve seen before, full of confident directorial style, quirky detail, complex emotions and tonal shifts, and perfect acting performances. I’m glad to be caught up.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 9th, 2020 at 7:41 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance”

  1. Like a lot of people who made the journey, I guess, I came to this one via OLDBOY. And it’s impressive how SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE manages to be both more believable and more fucked up than that.

    If the Korean Wave has a breakout female star on a par with Song Kang-ho or Lee Byung-Hun – and it probably doesn’t – then Bae Doona is she. She’s great in this, as indeed is Song Kang-ho, and very cool, but I wonder if here in the west we are only getting to see the good stuff. The quality control on these stars’ movies seems otherwise unbelievably high. I’d be interested to hear if anyone saw AIR DOLL, the Japanese movie she made with Hirokazu Kore-eda of SHOPLIFTERS fame. Here it only got a festival release, but it sure didn’t sound like MANNEQUIN.

  2. Great review.


    The scene where the father has to look his daughter’s dead body was the hardest scene for me. Some people I have discussed this on line found some sort of dark humour in some of the scenes (above mentioned scene where his sister is suffering, one scene where he sees the organ trafficer’s ad in the public toilet) but for my part I have not smiled once during the viewing.
    It threw one punch after another and I think that this ended up being Bae Doo Na’s finest hour, sadly.

  3. This movie is 90% great, but I still can’t stand the ending. It’s utterly out of tone with what’s come before, and just seems tacked on as a gratuitous twist. But I can overlook that in light of the harrowing two hours preceding it. I think this was the second thing I saw Bae Doo-na in, after BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE, and I’ve kept an eye out for her work ever since.

    Borg9: She’s fantastic in AIR DOLL, with a performance that reminds me of Giulietta Masina, but the film itself never really gels. I’d recommend LINDA LINDA LINDA instead, where she plays an exchange student roped in as the vocalist in a Japanese high-school punk band. You should also try to see TAKE CARE OF MY CAT, A GIRL AT MY DOOR, and obviously THE HOST. I wish she’d do more work with Bong Joon-ho; she’s spent the last decade mostly doing television dramas.

  4. Thanks, Matthew. While I loved SHOPLIFTERS, I was hoping that AIR DOLL had something more of AFTER LIFE about it. That was the movie that really made me notice Kore-eda and it is still a trip. I am happy to second your recommendation of GIRL AT MY DOOR and I’ll try to check out TAKE CARE OF MY CAT, and LINDA LINDA LINDA. Man, like I said, the quality control on these Korean stars is insanely high – so much stuff to catch up on!

    Vern, my apologies for not following you to Rebeller. I really hope it’s working for you and that you’re feeling good about it now. I also really hope you stressed the point about the value of socialised healthcare in your Vengeance Trilogy review for them.

  5. the first time i saw this i just sat there for like 5 minutes after the credits in shock. what a fucking gut punch of a movie. brutal and beautiful, with a grittiness than his subsequent “vengeance” movies abandoned (not necessarily to their detriment) in favor of an increasingly fantastical/fairy tale vibe

  6. Borg9 – Thank you. Yeah, other than a two-parter on Van Damme I think I have some lefty part in all of my columns so far. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t organic, though.

  7. Can’t wait to read your review of Lady Vengeance. My personal favorite of the three.

  8. Remember loving this, haven’t seen this in ages, but you really made me want to revisit it.

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