THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 8: Park Chan Wook – Sympathy For Mr.Vengeance

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance MAIN BWNext year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon, Park Chan Wook, and Bong Joon Ho have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. We’re currently looking at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Park Chan Wook

Year:  2002

Cast: Song Kang Ho, Shin Ha Kyun, Bae Doona, Lim Ji Eun,

Plot:  A deaf mute gets involved with black market organ dealers in order to supply his dying sister with a kidney. However, events soon spiral out of control to involve kidnapping, death, and vengeance on many levels.

And so began one of the most intriguing trilogies ever put to film. Like many of the best trilogies, this wasn’t a continuing story arc. Instead it was an examination of a specific subject, in this instance Vengeance. Vengeance is a fascinating subject for anyone to even contemplate. First of all how does one even go about seeking vengeance? When is it acceptable and when does it go too far? Should it be an eye for an eye, or should the punishment exceed the crime? Is forgiveness the best option…and on and on. No wonder Park Chan Wook decided to tackle an entire trilogy of films. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE is not only the first of the trilogy, but in my opinion the best and most fascinating.

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First of all we meet one of our protagonists. I say ‘one of’ because Park shows how revenge and poor decisions stretch out and infect everyone surrounding the events. Ryu is a deaf mute (Shin) a fact that isn’t used to generate immediate gushing sympathy for the character, but is instead used as a brilliant cinematic tool throughout the film. His inability to hear the world around him isolates him and makes interactions hard. Perhaps his dyed green hair is his way of crying out to those he can’t communicate with vocally? Ryu lives in a noisy apartment with his sister. The camera pans around and we get snippets of arguments, sexual intercourse, and conversations, things that Ryu can’t experience. It shows us how the world around him is a confusing and irritating place. Because of this, Ryu’s sister (Lim) is unable to sleep, which ironically means that Ryu can’t sleep. It represents the connection the two have to each other, a bond that highlights them as an almost singular entity.

Ryu is fired from his job, an act that takes place off-screen. Park decides to have a lot of key moments and decisions happen away from the viewer, which forces the script to be smart enough to include references to important events or represent them visually. In a way it helps us relate to Ryu as he rarely sees the entire picture due to his disabilities, we’re in his frame of mind having to piece things together from what we do know. It’s a film that is certainly not for the lethargic viewer. Losing a job, a dying sister in desperate need for a kidney, and showing Ryu helping an elderly man pull his trousers up, all go to show Ryu as a kind, caring, hardworking, and downtrodden member of society. Already there are probably certain acts you might forgive him for (littering, stealing a horse, etc.), and this film will certainly test how far you are willing to excuse his actions.

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Park also makes sure to show us how bizarre, cruel and unforgiving the world Ryu finds himself in is. As his sister writhes around in agony behind him, which he cannot hear, we are shown a group of boys living next door masturbating to the sounds they believe are coming from sexual ecstasy. It’s typical dark Korean humour, which makes us laugh at the absurdity, before also realising how wrong it is. It also points to how powerful sound can be, as Park uses it astoundingly well and Ryu is robbed of it. After being told that a kidney transplant is not likely to happen via legal means, Ryu decides to exchange all his money and his own kidney for one from the black market. He’s cut open and left naked and alone, with no money and no kidney. As fate would have it he is then told by a doctor that miraculously a kidney is now available. Ryu needs money and fast, and so he turns to his tomboyish anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong Mi (Bae) for ideas and the first one is to get even with Ryu’s ex-boss by kidnapping his daughter and asking for a ransom. Considering this to be far too risky and easily traceable, they instead decide to kidnap the daughter of his boss’ friend, Park Dong Jin (Song).

Dong Jin is introduced to us, not as a father, but an unscrupulous business man. He stands and watches a former employee of his cut open his own stomach and speak of his starving family. While Dong Jin shields his daughters’ eyes from this site a TGI Friday’s balloon knocks against his head. The imagery is perfect and raises the question of class struggle and asks if those high earners really need those fancy cars and exquisite suits. After Dong Jin’s daughter is kidnapped she is treated as a member of the family. As part of a way to justify their actions, Yeong Mi and Ryu believe treating the girl well and stealing from the rich is perfectly acceptable. After all they are saving a life. However, tragedy strikes (again) when Ryu’s sister becomes wise to their plan and takes her own life. As Ryu finds her corpse in the bath he lets out a muffled and heart wrenching scream; a scream of a mute who is unable to hear his own pain, the caterwauling of a man who has never rehearsed his outpouring of emotion.

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As Ryu goes to bury the body of his sister, the kidnapped girl falls into the water and drowns. Behind Ryu’s back, he is unable to hear her splashing and screaming. Park at first allows us to hear the screams of the child and as we clench our fists and grit our teeth he then leaves us without sound to remind us of Ryu’s perspective and that this is a form of dramatic irony used for tension and despair. After this the focus shifts to Dong Jin. A brutal scene shows Dong Jin at the autopsy of his daughter. Park, showing his discretion, only has Dong Jin in frame as his daughter is cut open. As we see Song give a stirring performance as Dong Jin, it is the sound that dominates. Without showing us a single gruesome image, the sound of bones being cut and ribcage being snapped open cause the audience to squirm and turn away, but turning away doesn’t stop sound in the same way as it does images. Dong Jin is now the sympathetic character and we are even shown his own internal struggle with guilt as he is visited by a spectre of his daughter who asks him why he never taught her to swim.

We are then caught somewhere in limbo as both Ryu and Dong Jin look for retribution of some kind. Ryu blames the organ dealers for this entire mess and sets out on a visceral and powerful revenge. Park has no restraint when showing the violence aimed at such reprehensible characters. Unfortunately for Ryu, Dong Jin is hot on his tail and we have to ask ourselves just who is ‘Mr. Vengeance’? The ambiguity in the title is open to much debate, but it’s also a fairly leading title as our sympathy should surely be with Ryu’s sister and Dong Jin’s daughter. Just when you feel as though you are leaning towards one of the protagonists they do something to either push you away or pull you in. It’s that classic car crash situation where you simply can’t look away.

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Incredible performances and delicate themes aside, the film is also beautifully constructed in every way. As I’ve already mentioned the sound is exceptional, especially in how Park picks and chooses his moments so carefully. The editing is also top-notch as we jump back and forth between our Mr. Vengeances. In one scene they are each involved in separate phone calls but their answers and questions are almost presented as being spoken to each other. The film is light on dialogue which is to the film’s absolute credit. Actions certainly do speak louder than words, which is part of the problem these characters are facing. Park also relies heavily on facial expressions and luckily he’s got the cast to deliver the goods. When the dialogue comes it is very affecting and to the point (at least in how it has been translated).

The problem with revenge is that it is all consuming. No matter how much we contemplate it and the actions in this film, until put in the situation we have no idea how we’d react. What it does show is how broken those seeking revenge can become, but also how events can spiral out of control. Are there villains in this film? Certainly, but neither of the protagonists can be labelled as such. As Dong Jin says to Ryu during their unforgettable climactic confrontation:

“I know you’re a good guy. But you know… why I have to kill you?”

It’s the closest to forgiveness that will be seen in this film. As we know Park would later go on to do revenge two more times with OLDBOY and LADY VENGEANCE, but for my money (despite how fantastic those films are) this is the truest and most destructive representation of revenge. No glossing over the subject, so satisfaction, and no glorification.

What To Take To STOKER? Such detailed use of sound is something that is always welcome, as is Park’s beautiful framing. Little dialogue would also force the aesthetic of the film to come forward as it should in the visual world.

STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.

You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.