Billed as the greatest film from last year that you’ve never seen, the unfortunately titled “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” was alas, a major disappointment. As directed by the admittedly talented South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, “Sympathy” is certainly a stylish affair, but also an extremely bleak and unpleasant one. This is a mercilessly grim film, whose mood teeters deliriously between noir atmospherics and modern shock values. The list of unpleasantries so thoroughly realized by Park and company range from black market organ-trafficking to in-your-face autopsies to graphic blood-letting. For my money though, the film is both too disturbing and yet not disturbing enough. It falls somewhere in the middle, as an interesting, if flawed, study of man’s darkest depths.
“Sympathy” is a deliberately paced (which is to say, somewhat slow), emotionally wrenching tale of revenge. The main character is Ryu (Shin Ha-Kyun), a green-haired deaf-mute, whose sister is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Things turn from bad to worse for Ryu and friends when he loses his job at a factory and then finds out that donating his own kidney is impossible, due to his being the wrong blood type. Desperate to save his sister’s life, Ryu and his politically radical girlfriend, Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Donna), make a trade with a sinister group of organ dealers: one of his kidneys and a large sum of cash in return for them finding a kidney for sis. The dealers of course renege on their deal (them being sinister and all) and Ryu is left kidney-less and broke. When a legitimate kidney becomes available for transplant, Ryu and Cha are forced to get creative: they decide to kidnap the young daughter of Ryu’s former boss and hold her for ransom. But before the exchange can be made, his sister commits suicide and the adorable little girl accidentally drowns (!). Don’t worry, I haven’t really given much away here since all of this, which takes roughly half the film, is just the set-up! If things weren’t dark enough already, the tone of the film from this point on becomes even blacker as Ryu plots revenge on the organ dealers while his former boss seeks revenge on him.
Park and his cinematographer, Kim Byeong-il, reveal an astonishing and sophisticated visual acuity with this film. The colors are both bold and muted, the compositions oddly fascinating, and the movements always… knowing. Park’s deliberate; overemphasis on style complements the impossibly bleak material. “Sympathy” is noir in the truest sense of the word and an uncompromising vision of humanity in its most primal, desperate state. It is a vision of man as both pitiable and guilty by nature (hence the probably too-literally-translated title). As such, there are no clear-cut ‘good’ guys or ‘bad’ guys in this sordid tale, only those who’ve been victimized by the system and seek retribution. Much like Miike’s “Ichi the Killer”, a similarly graphic, though less accomplished work, “Sympathy” is lacking someone to ‘root’ for. The real hero here is really Justice, which prevails over all.
A brilliant film is here… somewhere, if only I could muster some sympathy for this so-called ‘Mr. Vengeance’. For if Justice really is the hero here, then surely emotional depth and humanity are the victims. This is most tragic since the first half of “Sympathy” is such brilliant filmmaking and among the best of its kind in recent memory. Yet the film takes an unnecessarily ugly turn from which it never returns. I did not buy for a second the absurdly psychotic obsession with revenge experienced by Ryu and his former boss. Scratch that, I can definitely understand the obsession, but not the actions that flow out of it. Throughout “Sympathy”, I was reminded of Noé’s near-brilliant “Irreversible”, another disturbing cinematic provocation in its own right. Whereas Park’s film just left me cold, Noé’s nightmarish revenge coda both truly disturbed and moved me. True, few films ever do that, but in the case of “Sympathy” I wasn’t even very shocked. Call me jaded.