Seeing this movie for the first time is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. I mean, Geez, guys. What other horrific tragedies can befall these people? However, effectively ambiguous character development and outstanding acting serve to make this Korean revenge thriller more than just a series of senselessly violent nihilistic events.
Let me just tell you before I proceed with this review that I actually have not seen director Chan-Woo Park’s most famous film, “Oldboy.” I saw “Thirst” (an innovative take on the vampire film) and his English-language debut “Stoker,” as well as the not entirely comprehensible loony-bin comedy “I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK,” but not “Oldboy.” Therefore, I can not say which film is more effective as a revenge thriller or otherwise compare the two. But I digress.
Boyish green-haired deaf-mute Ryu (played magnificently by Ha-Kyun Shin) faces bitter labor in his dead-end factory job as well as ableism from the people in his personal life, who sound out consonants and vowels as if speaking to an unmitigated idiot. Ryu’s sister (Ji-Eun Lim) needs a kidney transplant, and when an honest operation doesn’t line up fast enough Ryu books a visit to a black-market ring of organ dealers, but is exploited and ultimately ripped off.
, Desperate and shystered out of any money he may have originally had, Ryu is reluctantly convinced by his left-wing extremist girlfriend Yeoung-Mi (Doona Bae) to kidnap the young daughter (Bo-bae Han) of Ryu’s former employer (Kang-ho Song,) with disastrous results.
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is a film you should pay close attention to, because big plot developments are only mentioned once, with minimal dialogue, and thus slip through the inattentive viewer’s recollection like grains of sand. It is a strange movie, with many darkly offbeat happenings. That said, it’s not really an abstract film either, and what you see is basically what you get (if you’re paying attention.)
Do not watch this movie if you are expecting an inspirational picture with a big-hearted disabled hero. The reason “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” works is although you feel for Ryu at times and are confronted by his desperation and his love for his sister, the filmmaker does not entirely let him off the hook either. Similarly, when the girl’s father goes on a journey of retribution, he does many unconscionable things that you nevertheless can comprehend, even empathize with.
This makes “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” a startling moral fable rather than a lurid revenge picture. You see how these two men got into these situations, and they’re nothing if not human. However, I was not as transfixed with the goings-on as I would’ve liked to have been and lost interest somewhat in the final 1/3rd, which is why I’m giving it 3.5/5 stars and thus abstaining from a higher rating.
I liked the fact that some of the otherwise silent Ryu’s thoughts are articulated through captions on the screen. Whether we admit it or not, someone being able to communicate their thoughts In some way makes them easier to relate to and the captions gave me a better look into his inner life. There is lots and lots of violence in the second half of the film, but as other critics have noted, nothing that does not directly fit the plot and the mood of the movie itself.
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is essentially a tragedy, more than it is a typical pulse-pounding action movie. It has real consequences for the crises it presents, which in my opinion is a must in good revenge film. It is a worthwhile watch for fans of Asian cinema and casual filmgoers alike. Just prepare for a Hell of a depressing story.