Sunday, 10 July 2016

Review: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002 Film)

[Slight spoiler warning: vague references to events after the midpoint.]

Ryu is a deaf-mute and fired factory-worker living with his sister. She needs a kidney which he cannot donate. Finding an advertisement in a public toilet, he pays for a kidney on the black market with his severance package, and his own incompatible kidney. Now that the hospitable has miraculously acquired a kidney, Ryu finds he has no money left to pay for the transfer. He and his girlfriend concoct an obvious plan-B: They will kidnap his old boss’s daughter for twenty-six million won.

Looking at my Madman/Eastern Eye DVD after watching, it amuses me how misleading it is.

Look at that. A man strangling another, about to stab him in the face, overlaid with a scratched-metal title design. ‘Hard boiled,’ raves Uncut. ‘Bites your head off,’ screams Screen International. They advertise the film as a grimy splatter-fest, where bloody bodies stab and bludgeon other bloody bodies in for rip-roaring revenge. And, yes, the film is violent, and dark, with visceral moments – but most often it’s blackly deadpan. A tragedy told as absurdist comedy.

Cheeky nihilism floats through this movie. The characters have goals which factors out of their control thwart. Ryu has the will, but lacks blood-type, to give his sister his kidney. When he buys a suitable kidney with ten million won, he thinks he has saved his sister’s life. He may have the kidney, but transferring it will cost an extra ten million – and he spent all of his severance package. Near the beginning of the film, you can see his feckless frustration symbolised as he bats baseballs from an automated pitcher. The viewer hears the launcher fire, and the bat’s thud, but the camera avoids the collision of bat and ball. The extreme close-up on Ryu’s face captures his anger. Hiding the outlet of his anger – his catharsis – captures how powerless he is.

I shall spoil slightly. Ryu’s and his girlfriend’s plan to kidnap his boss’s daughter fails for reasons outside of their control. They did not get too greedy, nor did they make a fatal slip. Circumstances and people they did not account for undo their plans.

Ryu’s boss is powerless too. This man who wielded absolute power over Ryu’s livelihood, has no power to help his daughter. His safe position in life is shattered by a person he himself made low.  

The film is not merely an anti-revenge morality tale, where immorality begets immorality, and achieves nothing. In the film, the world thwarts malevolent and altruistic intentions.

Don’t be misled, this film is a tragedy in summary only. Its deadpan comedic formal elements sap tragic events of tragedy. Like nausea, the film’s style makes the world unbearably light. Rarely does the camera give violence its due. Spare one or two sequences, the viewer is never in the action. They do not feel the victim’s pain, or the attacker’s might. During brutality, the camera hangs back, such that you can see the whole of the characters’ bodies like in a silent comedy. There is no music, and the Foley-work understates the violence. You do not hear ribs shattering under a kick; you hear a shoe thudding against the softness of clothes and flesh.

The life-changing import of the characters decisions and motivations is also robbed of significance. The first we see of Ryu’s sister, and the screaming pain she suffers (Ryu’s motivation), it is undercut, played as a joke. Before seeing her, the audience hears her. The camera focusses on four lodgers’ next-door, who mistake her groans for sexual moans.

When the eponymous ‘Mr Vengeance’ vows vengeance, we cut to him inside a child’s inflatable ball. When he discovers a key piece of information regarding his target, we cut to him skimming rocks over a lake.

The ending is a joke, in the best and bleakest sense of the word.

I find it surprising, and a little pleasing, how little the narrative exploits Ryu’s deaf-mute-ness. Typically such traits would be played for tension. The audience hears someone approaching, which he cannot; he has to pass on vital info, but cannot. But his deaf muteness rarely affects the story. The only people he converses with in-depth are his sister and girlfriend, who can sign. With other people, he can lip-read. And when he receives such important information (e.g. that he cannot donate his kidney; that he has been fired) his muteness makes no difference – what would he say? Lacking a narrative purpose, there is a thematic purpose for his deafness and muteness: in the end, regardless of the senses and abilities at our command, we are all powerless.


  1. I must confess again and again that I have not watched the film, and with certain films, I would never watch them (but merely cast a glance of the plot). Instead of trying to be objective, I guess it is best for the reader to realise that I am deeply prejudiced and biased that they can judge through my use of first person “I” my own flaws.
    “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, is labelled ‘crime, drama and thriller’, but never ‘black comedy’. I am conflicted by the ideology of reading and creating such ‘dark’ stories. The characters are doomed at the start, and all leads to a tragic ending, with the implication that we can blame no one…
    This “darkness” has two approaches: the first one is to ask “Who is really innocent?” and the second one is: “Who isn’t?” — The criminal is ultimately a victim of other crimes. In order to plan such effect (if intended), the writers play the characters as chess pieces, to emphasis their helplessness, and amplify their desperation — while I am well-aware that such situation must exist in real life — but seriously I must laugh at the pretentiousness, affectation and artificiality — the same reason I may laugh at “Hamlet”, Jane Austen must laugh at Gothic Novel, that we see one after another parody of Teenagers Romance (should we not laugh at “Twilight”?), but I didn’t laugh at “Hamlet”, instead I was a little bit annoyed at such narrative — the writers have an invisible hands, just like our ghostly ‘fate’ or ‘society’ controlling everything. What is the pleasure of watching such film? But there is a certain comfort to walk into such character, into their sensibility, softness, loving, that we are at once feeling that we are pushed. If the film is all about the brutal ‘truth’, I shall cast it away and watch documentaries instead.
    The emotional trauma must be balanced by powers beyond reality. I shall list serval films that is as famous in its tragic effect even though I have unconsciously avoided them. “Dancer in the Dark” is a wonderful way to explore the hopelessness of an almost similar but gender-swapped version of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, our heroine is losing her eyesight as a heritage within the family, and she is trying to save her son. She runs into the magical world of musical and finds her comfort there. Musicals are a powerful tool, because it first makes this would-be unbearable tragedy bearable, focuses on characters’ psychology than ‘fate’ or ‘society’, builds an intimacy relationship between characters and the audiences, and shall leave a haunting effect after the story — an almost delusion that audience would thought it is those fantasy/musical that makes the tragedy most unbearable, that actually it is because of these magical moments that we are connected with characters with their desire, hope, sadness, that actually makes the film more bearable — and that is why I prefer “West Side Story” infinitely better to “Romeo and Juliet” (despite the fact that I have never watched that play, yet).

  2. But there is no revenge with “Dancer in the Dark”, there is no hate — in an artistic sense, I run away from hate, for it destroys, and embraces love, because it creates, even though the loss of love will breed hatred, and that is why I cries out in “Wuthering Heights”, where is love? I only see hate, and if there is ‘love’, all is destroyed by hatred. Its power lies in its violent emotion, a destructive force, but Heathcliff’s revenge must stop, as hatred dries people’s emotion, and he must forgive — that he himself is a symbol of such force, and he dies away when he forgives, and it is at that moment, he is finally be able to reunite with his beloved Cathy.
    “Frankenstein” is also to do with revenge and tragedy, and its force actually lies into common yearning for acceptance and love…
    Solitary is a driven force or an unavoidable theme of revenge… Actually, how should one fell to become the sole being in face of life? The Monster is alone, and Dr. Frankenstein is reduced to be alone. Revenge preys upon the solitary, and love must destroy it as it requires at least two people.
    But it is not always one person, a couple can do the job — “In the Bedroom” (2001) explores the theme of revenge. An elder couple has lost their own son, and the criminal is not even severally punished, so they must take their own revenge… But I must confess it is too long for my taste, there is at most only two round characters, and I would like to explore them through a short story than a lengthy feature, yes, the whole film is a short story, with a building-up, final revenge, life-never-be-the-same-again ending…
    Indeed, none of those two novels are very long, they might be called novella. With the same Kindle Edition, “Wuthering Heights” is 214 pages, whilst “Frankenstein” is 126 pages, with all supernatural gothic forces to amplify emotion.
    “Fargo” (1996) by Coen brothers is actually “Dark Comedy Crime Thriller”, for it breaks away the clich├ęd story-telling of crime films, and this is a film with a ‘well-planed’ abduction, but everything goes wrong. It does play on audience perception of Truth and Fiction. The thrill comes because you assume it is ‘true’, and the artistic style supposes it (as the horror is undermined first by daily conversation and exchange, which is the actual reason why the final killing part is altogether horrifying. Yes, same with the musical principle, the thriller and crime becomes bearable through such slice-of-life style, but thus making it most horrifying).
    Then we have No Country for Old Men (2007), I may praise the use of imagery and the aesthetic approach through suggestive images to tell the story. It is a certainly a very clever way of story-telling, and fits thriller almost perfectly. But the world of crime is too far away from my own life, and that I would rather sheltered myself away from Western films in general. When we have our master Hitchcock with a great use of imagery and cut to tell a thrilling story, with (sometimes) deeper exploration of society, psychology and philosophy, I ran away from such ‘masculine’ romance.

  3. But what about Buffalo ’66 (1998) by Vincent Gallo? — which also uses a great way of visual style and musical elements to build a character who desperately need love and was going to seek revenge (there is some clever ways of tracking the audience, well, it is the same with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2’s “Shocking Reveal”, but this one explores the character’s changing through the process), and our ‘anti-hero’ eventually finds his comfort in love (though realistically speaking, through his almost autobiography depiction of his past, we all only conclude that he shall find his redemption not through lover/female’s love, but only art).
    Musicals element are used excessively in the film “Memories of Matsuko” (2006), Matsuko is to be despised if we summary her life through a third-person perspective, yes, indeed, we have our framing device in the character of her nephew, observing her from outside and then moving inside. Matsuko’s final revelation is not upon romance love (from male) but from family and friendship (from female). Her two sincerest relationship comes from the forms of a sister and a female friend. She is as blind as Scarlett from “Gone with the Wind”, and possesses as much life as her as well. The musical forces give Matsuko life force and explores her childish and innocent nature, but she must ask: “Why?” Why life is so cruel? Why everything always leave her? Why this or Why that? That she gives all her heart to love, yet no one loves her. She could not understand, do we, audience really understand what life is; what love is? My biggest complain for this film is to have a framing character. We only want to see Matsuko, and without such framing, it would not necessarily shorter but much stronger film.
    What is the artistic sympathy to tell a tragic story? Powerful yet bearable (though people may think it is unbearable), it exists in the form of the little girl in red coat in the film “Schindler’s List” (1993). Then we have Ida (2013), beautiful use of black and white shoot, beauty and heart-breaking tangles within the film, the whole collective tragedy of Jewish, of her family, of the meaningless of life, has laid upon the shoulder of Ida. In such artistic movements, silence in word, and music in the background is most powerful.
    What about “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), we must have those beautiful fireflies, beautiful melodies in order to support ourselves through the tragedy. Love must be the underlying force. After Japanese art, we can dive into Chinese art, with “Farewell My Concubine” (1993) and “To Live” (1994), both of them must have art, have music, have beauty in it, beside love, there must be something more to support the audience through a tragedy. “A City of Sadness” (1989) has explored the society not directly, but suggestively, through the breakdown of a family, constrain is most powerful to explore the ‘sadness’. “Rogue” (1988) centres around a beautiful woman called Fleur, her being a ghost, beautiful artistic choices and supernatural forces to explore, the devotion of love, and the final realisation to let it go. Even with “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), has linked itself towards “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” All these films, western and eastern alike, explores the society ‘only by accident’, through the aesthetic depiction towards the sensibility of characters. We must care the characters in order to care the social problem. “The Dawns Here Are Quiet”, a 1972 Soviet film has explored the tragedy of war through the destruction of characters, of course, romanticised. We must see those characters cherishing their lives, having a dream, devotion.
    Magic and fantasy actually help the writer to explore the tragedy. Life of Pi (2012): why should we all try desperately to believe the first clearly unrealistic story?

  4. If we focus on revenge and thrill, there is “Prisoners” (2013), and “Gone Girl” (2014), I would probably only watch “Prisoners”. There is also the TV series “One of Us” (2016), exploring the revenge and psychological horror (which I will not watch).
    When this film decides to focus on a Revenge plot, when it sets itself to a journey of becoming modern “Hamlet”, it must use some artistic approach to match the power of poetry within Shakespeare. I am not sure if the laughable part of the film is due to the fact that the director wishes to represent the darkest mockery from ‘fate’, or because of its artificiality to force such a narrative in a world which can be anywhere, just like Hamlet, in order to reach universality, its power fells flat (personal opinion). Such story can be duplicated endlessly. The Death of Parents, The Deft, The Mute, The only Family who has Canner, The Unemployment, The Black Market, The Dying of an Innocent Girl, we must ignore that in a modern South Korean society, somehow we can dismiss disabled people easily, there is no support from the government, and “Kidney” magically appears when it must always be the most desperate time of people’s life… The tragedy almost become a laugh matter for writers to create the most tragic character. If we are to explore family love or romantic love, “One True Thing” (1998) has done the justice towards family love, and “Amour” (2012) has actually dealt with the social problem of love and death, and the moral of euthanasia. Perhaps, it is based on my own aesthetic sensibility, that I shall prefer “My Sister’s Keeper” (2009 film) changing of ending towards the original novel (which I will not read). Yes, whatever the film trying to achieve, with each individual elements, there are some films performing it infinitely better.
    Perhaps, we must also remember Pan’s Labyrinth (2012), a dark fantasy exploring the social and historical context in Spain after the Civil War, and listen to the Lullaby (which has no lyrics, yes, great emotion and sadness is often beyond the expression of words), to remember all the poor souls, finally, finally lying in peace (yes, if the writer is determined to doom his characters no matter what, death perhaps is their own salvation for peace, than forgiveness).

  5. Frankenstein (1818) (Have Read)
    Wuthering Heights (1847) (Have Read)
    West Side Story (1961) (Have Watched)
    The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972) (Have not Watched)
    Grave of the Fireflies (1988) (Have not Watched)
    Rogue (1988) (Have Not Watched)
    A City of Sadness (1989) (Have Watched)
    A Brighter Summer Day (1991) (Have not Watched)
    Schindler’s List (1993) (Have Watched)
    Farewell My Concubine (1993) (Have not Watched)
    To Live (1994) (Have Watched)
    Buffalo ’66 (1998) (Have Watched)
    One True Thing (1998) (Have Watched)
    Dancer in the Dark (2000) (Have not Watched)
    In the Bedroom (2001) (Have Watched)
    Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) (Have not Watched)
    Memories of Matsuko (2006) (Have Watched)
    Pan’s Labyrith (2006) (Have Watched)
    No Country for Old Men (2007) (Have Watched)
    My Sister’s Keeper (2009) (Have Watched)
    Life of Pi (2012) (Have Watched)
    Amour (2012) (Have not Watched)
    Ida (2013) (Have Watched)