An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. This famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi perfectly encapsulates the 2002 Korean revenge film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Directed by Park Chan-wook, the film succeeds in making each “villain” sympathetic as well as including some traditional gory scenes that Chan-wook is known for.
The film begins with Ryu a deaf and dumb young man who works in an industrial plant. He lives with his sister, a woman who is sick and requires a kidney transplant. Ryu is told that his blood isn’t compatible with his sister and he can not directly donate a kidney to her. After being fired, Ryu finds a sticker stating that there are people with organs for sale. Remind me never to go to Korea by the way. Ryu works out a deal that since it will be so long for his sister to get a kidney the legal way, he will sell his kidney and then buy a kidney from the same people and give that kidney to his sister. Sounds like a solid, if not disgusting plan. Ryu makes the the deal and wakes up abandoned without a kidney and the money. He immediately realizes he’s been had and his pain worsens when he receives word from the hospital that a kidney is available for his sister, but now he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.
Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend Cha then suggests to kidnap the daughter of his former boss. Ryu and Cha observe as another former employee attempts to get money from the boss and fails and the boss seems very well protected and they would be the first people suspected of this crime. Instead, the couple decide to kidnap the daughter of his boss’ neighbor, Park Dong-jin. The girl is kidnapped and treated well, although they lead Park to believe that his daughter is about to be killed unless he delivers the money. Ryu’s sister learns of Ryu getting laid off at his job and pieces things together, ultimately killing herself in the bath. When Ryu goes to a lake to bury her, the kidnapped girl accompanies him and falls off a bridge and drowns as Ryu cannot hear her screams.
From here we have a revenge filled third act with Ryu searching for the people that robbed him of his kidney and in some ways his sister. Park is looking for the people who killed his daughter, and finally after Park dispatches of Cha, Ryu is searching for Park who killed the only girlfriend he’s ever had.
As I mentioned there are a lot of revenge plots going throughout the film. What I loved about this film is that each of the people involved in the plot is sympathetic. Ryu just wanted to help his sister and I felt for him after he had been scammed. I was happy for him during his revenge scene on those people and scared for him once the little girl fell off the bridge. Similarly, Park is divorced, not wealthy, and is going through a tough time in his life we learn before his little girl is taken from him. All he wants is her back and he’ll do anything to reach that goal. It’s a film where there are two good guys and a few bad guys and you’re not really sure which is which or who you’re supposed to be cheering for. I loved that aspect of it and I really enjoyed this film as a whole.
The only problems I had with the film I chalk down to being cultural. First of all we have a row of four guys masturbating literally next to each other while Ryu’s sister screams and moans. They think she’s having sex and really she’s screaming from the pain of her illness but I was unsure as to if this was supposed to be funny, sad, or what exactly the purpose of this scene was. Maybe just to illustrate the ease in which people in those box-like apartments can hear each other. The other thing was a character who is physically retarded. The man is down at the lake and shows up both times the plot is at this location. The man tries to help the downing girl, and tries to keep the rocks off of Ryu’s sister when Ryu attempt to bury her. What I didn’t get was this man didn’t have to be in the picture at all. I imagine there is some point to having him in the film but I just didn’t get it. Those are small nitpicks I had with the movie that kept it from being a 5 star film for me, but the overall sense I got from this film is that while it’s not quite up to the Oldboy level, it’s certainly one of the better Korean films I’ve seen and one of the better foreign films I’ve seen in the 365 challenge.