SYMPATHY FOR MISTER VENGEANCE (Park Chan Wook)
*May contain spoilers
Vengeance is always a fascinating theme for cinematic exploration, because it lays the groundwork for a moral debate, and moral debates are among those which I look for in movies.
Of all the noted Korean filmmakers whose films I've seen, Park Chan-wook is clearly the one with a tendency, no make that an assured delivery to shock you out of your senses. His ideas, and his visual translation of those ideas birth compelling results. I only saw two of his films previous to this; THIRST was a hysterical yet blood-soaked vampire movie, while JSA (JOINT SECURITY AREA) is a stirring political thriller that evoked so much emotion in me, even though I'm not Korean.
SYMPATHY FOR MISTER VENGEANCE, the first installment of his now famous "Vengeance Trilogy" starts out slow, but gets real serious and interesting during the second act. It is a story headlined by antiheroes, and like THIRST and JSA, the ending is governed by force majeure, an undeniable truth that defined their fate from the moment each character made that grim decision early in the movie.
Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a deaf-mute caring for her ailing sister (Lim Ji-eun). Good-hearted by nature, Ryu gets wronged by a syndicate involved in the illegal trade of kidneys (and possibly other body organs, too) which further complicates his situation of finding a kidney for her sister.
Ryu resorts to kidnapping the child of his former boss's friend, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho). From this very wrongful act, he has sealed his own fate. We all know the story would end in bloodshed. Ryu has lost his innocence.
Ryu wants money in exchange for the kid's freedom, so he can pay for her sister's operation. The kid dies, but not of Ryu's doing. This is where it all begins to get FUBAR.
Dong-jin, who is the supposed victim here, mourns the death of her daughter; but as human nature to any grieving father, he meditates on revenge. He kidnaps the kid of the man he suspects to have perpetrated the crime, and when that turns out to be a mistake, he digs deeper, finds the real culprits (Ryu and his left wing activist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi), and becomes the murderer himself.
The story shows us a cycle of violence, where one death begets another until everything is out of control. You don't kill a human being and just expect it to end there. There will be retaliation, and there will never be peace, especially for a murder in cold blood.
Ryu is also a victim- a victim of the strong preying on the weak, a victim of his disability, and a victim of a trick. His sister was the test, and he failed.
As for the namesake, yes there is sympathy for mister vengeance (both Ryu and Dong-jin). I understood where they are coming from, what propelled them to do what they did, but in the end there goes your moral dilemma: at one point, it could seem reasonable, killing in the name of justice or rebellion to society, but in a bigger picture, a wrong can never be righted by another wrong.
Then again, we can never be certain unless we get there. We cannot conclude that we will not do the same things Ryu and Dong-jin did. Revenge is so strong an emotion it turns good men into beasts.
Song Kang-ho, as always embraces his character with pure insight and introspection. There are those moments of silence, and while watching his character find the words to say, I am in awe and then filled with so much pain.
Shin Ha-kyun is perfect, too. He elicits the necessary emotions through his eyes and through body language. (remember he plays a deaf-mute, so the pressure is doubly hard.)
As for Park Chan-wook, this is another welcome addition to his oeuvre (one of the best, in fact). The ending scene makes perfect sense. There is a catharsis, but then the force majeure element returns like a dreadful nightmare.