Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a stylish, cold-blooded revenge thriller directed by Park Chan-wook, is quite a ride. It’s a violent story, one that involves many different factions all vying to ensure that everyone else gets what’s coming to them. About an hour in, you find yourself thinking that you wouldn’t be surprised if everyone involved died at the end. Whether or not that happens is something I’ll leave for you to discover.
The basic set-up — although this is definitely not how the film’s second half plays out — goes something like this. A deaf/mute man, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), needs money to get his sister (Lim Ji-eun) a kidney transplant. He gets fired from his job, so, along with his girlfriend (Bae Doona), kidnaps the daughter (Bo-bae Han) of his former boss, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho). From there, things go wrong on all fronts. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and this film is as icy as they come. Anything more than this will count as spoilers.
I will say, however, that most of the main characters get at least a couple of situations where they’re either the victim or perpetrator of revenge. That’s the theme, and the film sticks with that throughout. As soon as one character is wronged, you know that they’ll at least try to get vengeance upon whichever character wronged them. There’s something noble about this, I find, when the characters all collectively pick an idea and stick with it. It makes the film simple and easy to digest, even when its content does exactly the opposite.
This is a violent film. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is, at times, shockingly violent. More than one scene might make you turn away. But it’s not violent all the time, and when the violence does happen, it doesn’t feel forced. It’s not violent for the sake of it; it’s doing it because that’s where the story has taken these characters. It’s the only logical conclusion of an arc. While you might not like seeing the brutality presented on the screen, there’s a part of you that almost has to admire it. It’s not pretty, but it kind of is.
The reason for this is that the film has been created with a lot of passion by someone who understands how to make a good movie. Along with his cinematographer, Park Chan-wook has crafted this picture in a way that makes every scene feel meaningful, even if it isn’t. Each shot is gorgeous, even if it’s depicting a gruesome murder. The brightly colored attire of the main characters stands out against the dull, drab, washed-out backgrounds. The deliberate pacing near the beginning accentuates the events at the end. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance isn’t the most thrilling movie ever made, but it is one that holds your attention and doesn’t let go.
The only problem I had with the direction was a choice made at the end of the film, which explained an earlier scene through voice-over narration. It wasn’t necessary. This had already been explained — and it wasn’t even from much earlier. It was if Chan-wook didn’t think his audience would remember something from thirty minutes earlier, so he threw this in to ensure that the ending wouldn’t feel like he used a deus ex machina. It’s not a significant issue, but it’s worth bringing up.
Even though Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance comes across as rather cold, there are definitely some moments of dark humor scattered throughout. Maybe that adds to that feeling. In any case, the laughter from something dark and morbid doesn’t make the film any happier. Oddly enough, the most inviting portions of the film wind up involving just a couple of people interacting like normal, with not a whole lot important going on. It’s here when the film feels alive, which makes the stripping of that later on more effective.
Does Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance provide a lot of food for thought? Not a ton, but it doesn’t exactly need to. It gives you enough — think about how good people do bad things, or how even the noblest of intentions don’t always yield positive results — and then it also gives you this cool, crisp movie about revenge that will leave you shocked, surprised, and engaged.
Much of the proceedings rely on an actor who isn’t allowed to vocalize his emotions. Shin Ha-kyun doesn’t get to speak, which makes his role a great deal more challenging than it could have been. He nails it. You rarely, if ever, wonder what’s going on in his mind. Following close behind are Bae Doona and Song Kang-ho, as his girlfriend and boss, respectively. There are many scenes that work almost solely because of the way these actors pull them off, and each of them deserves a great deal of credit for how well this movie works.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a very good movie. It is made with style and passion, performed very well by the actors who get the most screen time, and contains a simple, yet incredibly effective story. It will catch you off-guard, it will captivate you, and it might make you turn your head as it draws closer to its conclusion. When the violence arrives, it makes sense in the context of the film. Remove the narration near the end and you have improved on an already great motion picture. This is most assuredly a film that you should watch, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.