As the sophomore entry in our Netflix Movie of the Week series I bring you the great and criminally underrated Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Some of you may be aware of Park Chan-wook’s other works, such as the fantastic Oldboy or his more recent American debut, Stoker, and if you know anything about Park you’ll know he has a bit of a fascination with revenge, hell he even made a whole trilogy of films about it, aptly named the Vengeance Trilogy. But, of all of Park’s explorations of revenge none get quite as close to its heart as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
The film follows Ryu, a deaf-mute, whose extremely ill sister needs a kidney transplant. She’s been waiting for a long time, but there don’t seem to be any kidneys available. Ryu, desperate to save his sister, goes to a group of organ dealers for help only to be coned out of his own kidney and all of his money. Just as he comes back from being robbed, his doctor tells him that they’ve finally found a kidney for his ailing sister. The problem being that the operation costs 10,000,000 won, 10,000,000 won of which were just stolen. With his back to the wall, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi, decide the only way to get the money is to kidnap his ex-boss’s daughter. As you can imagine this goes about as well as every kidnapping plot in any movie ever goes, terribly wrong, and leads to one of the most gruesome cycles of violence I’ve every seen on film.
I cannot overstate this movie’s gruesomeness enough. It’s pretty brutal stuff, and not for the weak of heart, but it’s all completely necessary. The ultra-violence in many ways heightens the tragedy of the film, because while the characters may do monstrous things they are most certainly not monsters. They’re more victims of the spirit of vengeance that drives them than vicious sadists. It’s actually astounding how Park Chan-wook is able to make almost all of these characters completely sympathetic as they commit sin after sin. It’s pretty difficult by the end of the film to really know who was in the right or wrong, and maybe no one was. Maybe, it was just the fault of foolish and human desire for revenge that all these characters represent.
While this all might seem relentlessly depressing and horrible, and in some regards it is, it’s also astonishingly hilarious at certain times. Park, much like the Coen Brothers, has an amazing eye for pitch black, dark humor. He’s able to distill the utter absurdity of life and his central theme of revenge down into comic gold. This works quite well to add a bit of relief to the devastating subject matter while adding to the film’s central thesis, and gives us one of the most tragically funny ending I’ve ever seen.
It gives me great satisfaction to finally write about this movie, as it’s, in my opinion, one of the better I’ve ever laid eyes on, and it pains me to see it so neglected by the film world. However, I have a caveat. If you’ve watched Park’s other work don’t go in expecting the craziness of his newer films like Oldboy or Thirst. This is a more down to earth vision, but not any less relentless. So please, take my advice and check this out. Help make this unsung classic, just a classic.
PS: The trailer’s a little spoilery, so watch out.
Rating: 5 out of 5