Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Republic of Korea 2002

Film still for Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Reviewed by Ryan Gilbey


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Korea, the present. Ryu (Shin Ha-gyun) is a deaf-mute who is laid off from his factory job. After discovering he is the wrong blood type to donate a kidney to his ailing sister, he takes his redundancy pay to organ dealers, proposing to swap the money and one of his kidneys for a compatible match. When he regains consciousness in their now deserted premises, he is ten million won and one kidney poorer. Encouraged by his anarchist girlfriend Young-mi (Bae Du-na), Ryu kidnaps Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae), the daughter of his former boss, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho). Dong-jin delivers the ransom. Returning home with it, Ryu finds that his sister has killed herself after realising there was no cash left for a transplant. He takes Yu-sun with him to bury his sister, but the child accidentally drowns in a lake. Ryu visits the new offices of the organ dealers and brutally murders them. Dong-jin, who has sworn to avenge his daughter, tortures and kills Young-mi. Later, he drives Ryu to the lake where Yu-sun died and drowns him. As Dong-jin is preparing a grave for Ryu, he is stabbed by Young-mi's terrorist accomplices.


The Korean thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance deserves some kind of recognition for its remarkable inventory of cruelty. The director Park Chan-wook (whose last film Joint Security Area was a thriller set in the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea) never chooses a simple shock effect when there is time instead for a shock-within-a-shock-within-a-gross-out-gag. Before the film's harrowing two hours have elapsed, we will have witnessed a dying man spraying blood from his neck and excrement from his anus, after being caught with his pants down, preparing to rape an anaesthetised patient who had come to flog him a kidney. A woman cannot merely be electrocuted to death; there follows a gloating shot of her urine puddling on the floor where her killer is slurping noodles. And it isn't enough that the camera tracks the progress of a tiny marshmallow-shaped casket along a crematorium conveyor-belt. We must then be taken inside that casket, to see a dead child and her beloved doll bubbling in a fondue of flesh and plastic.

Beneath these lunges at prevailing taboos lies a chain of misunderstandings that delivers the film to the edge of farce. The first half focuses on Ryu, a deaf-mute factory hand with a splash of blue hair and a crestfallen face; the second half traces the attempts of the businessman Park Dong-jin to hunt down the killers of his daughter, Yu-sun. Ryu has learning difficulties, and the plot relies heavily on his naive assessments of hazardous situations. When he sees Yu-sun, whom he has kidnapped in order to finance his sister's kidney transplant, floating in a lake, he decides not to wade in and save her because the water would cover his head, and he too might drown. Only subsequently does it occur to him that the water would in fact have barely reached his chest. His evaluation of the danger was based on a childhood memory of the lake: as a boy he would indeed have been submerged.

Other misreadings are less contrived. When asked why he had not contacted the police about his daughter's disappearance, Dong-jin, who had complied fully with Ryu's ransom demand, replies sadly: "I thought lots of kids returned safely, if you do what they tell you." Placing so much privileged knowledge in the hands of the audience can encourage our sense of distance and superiority, but in this instance our insight lends extra poignancy to Dong-jin's response, since unlike him we know he played no part in Yu-sun's death.

Sometimes the camera will tilt upwards from the action, towards the crowded rooftops that stretch into the horizon, as though contemplating further misunderstandings too numerous to investigate. But Park is not generally so assured at controlling his film's tone. In one ostentatious scene, the camera drops in on four boys masturbating to a symphony of female gratification emanating from the neighbouring apartment, before gliding through the partition wall to reveal the source of those sounds - Ryu's sister, writhing and wailing in bedridden agony, while an oblivious Ryu eats dinner with his back turned.

Perhaps Park is arguing here that the tiniest drop of pleasure must be balanced by a corresponding portion of pain. (Certainly the idea turns up again, when Ryu goofs around sweetly with Yu-sun, only to be interrupted by the discovery of his sister's suicide note.) But whatever Park's intention, the masturbation scene plays like the party piece of a smarty-pants; the boys' innocent titillation is sullied, while the suffering of Ryu's sister, which in all other respects we are expected to take seriously, is baldly exploited. It calls to mind a moment in Sharon Olds' poem 'What Shocked Me When My Father Died' (from her collection The Father), in which the poet's husband smothers her sobs of grief in case they are mistaken for orgasmic panting by relatives in adjacent bedrooms. Olds is in control here: her comprehension of the multiple readings of that situation, and the way she shares her omniscience, is the poem's subject. But in Park's frame, it is only the director who comes out on top, and there is nothing in his crowing triumph that we can take for ourselves beyond a crumb of second-hand smugness.

This recourse to cheap tricks characterises Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance far more than its poker-faced brooding on issues of justice and forgiveness. It's what finally prevents the film from earning the right to be as morbid and portentous as it would like to be.


Park Chan-wook
Lee Jae-soon
Lee Moo-young
Lee Yong-jong
Park Ridame
Director of Photography
Kim Byung-il
Kim Sang-beom
Production Designer
Choi Jung-hwa
Pae Hyun-jin
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011