[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.