Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance


"Highly recommended. That's all you need to know."

- Mighty Peking Man

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2001)

AKA: Sympathy For Mister Vengeance; Myboksu

Director: Park Chan-Uk 

Producer: Lee Jae-Soon

Writers: Mu-Yeong Lee, Jae-sun Lee, Park Chan-Uk 

Cast: Song Kang-Ho, Shin Ha-Gyun, Bae Doo-Na

Running Time: 175 min.

Plot: Ryu tries to donate one of his kidneys to his sick sister, only to receive the diagnosis that his is not appropriate for her. On top of this, he is fired from his factory for missing work to care for his sister, and his severance pay is only 10 million won ($7,000). First he gets mixed up with an organ seller in the black market who steals his kidney, then he also loses his 10 million won. He gets a call from the hospital saying they have a match for his sister but it's too late. Ryu's girlfriend Youngmi suggests kidnapping a rich man's child, saying, "kidnapping for a good reason is not a crime..." 

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ALEXANDER'S REVIEW: (Many spoilers ahead, people.)

"It wasn't so much the gore of bloodletting, which was not as extreme as some would have led you to believe." So says frequent poster and sometime reviewer owlman in his review of the excessively violent, needlessly shocking, gratuitous and ultimately boring Korean dud "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." I've read hundreds of the reviews on this site, but never have I scratched my head in confusion like I did upon reading owlman claim, "[it] was not as extreme as some would have led you to believe." I mean, ANM's (another frequent poster on this site) near-obsessive fawning over Jean-Claude Van Damme makes more sense than that statement does.

Are you joking? Being ironic? Did we watch the same fucking movie? The same "Sympathy" that features a grotesquely realistic scene of a man slashing his own bloated belly with a knife? Another involving a knife being jabbed into an artery and an ensuing close-up of blood roiling beneath the guy's skin until he removes the knife at which point gallons of blood erupts from his neck, geyser-like? The same movie that shows, from afar, a man getting bashed in the head with an aluminum bat? A knife being plunged into a chest? A man's palm slashed with a knife? Achilles tendons ripped apart, in close-up? Scenes of torture? Necrophelia? Bloody urine? Not extreme enough for you, owlman? Dude, do you store severed heads in your freezer next to the Ben and Jerry's? Human hearts perfectly preserved in Gladware next to the leftover take-out?

Jesus, dude. You scare me.

"Sympathy" is extremely violent. Gratuitously so. NEEDLESSLY so, which serves only to detract from what otherwise could have been a moving and thought-provoking story of revenge on a much deeper level than what we're used to seeing in the usual Hollywood fare. For example, I thought the most shocking and disturbing scene was of the drowning of the daughter, filmed over the shoulder of a preoccupied man, and the ensuing close-up of her half-submerged in water, lodged against a rock. THAT scene freaked me out, and terrified me on a level that managed to add suspense to the story without turning me off to it. 

Remember the torture scene in "Reservoir Dogs"? It was shocking and believable and underscored the bad-ness of Mr. White's character. It was relevant and necessary and it wasn't one of a series of equally gruesome and horrifying scenes throughout the film. It was the ONLY horrifying scene in the film, which made it that much more effective. Remember the scene of Travolta and Jackson in the sedan in "Pulp Fiction"? The one where the gun accidentally goes off, destroying that kid's head in the back of the car and leaving brain matter on the rear window? THAT is the kind of scene that plays repeatedly in "Sympathy." But Tarantino's bit works because it's so novel. It's not followed by more horrific violence and gore. It's followed by great dialogue and advancement of the story. Hell, Tarantino even lampooned the waves of violence in Asian films in "Kill Bill." "Sympathy," however, plays it straight without a bit of irony (with the exception of the title, as there is no one involved who deserves our "sympathy")...and it fails. It's just too much. ("Sympathy" warrants comparison to another ultra-violent Korean movie, "Old Boy." But the violence in "Old Boy," while gratuitous, fits within the context of that film. "Sympathy's" doesn't.) 

As mentioned in previous reviews, there are long stretches in the movie with no dialogue at all. This would have worked fine had this silence not been punctuated with so much villainy and graphic violence. Instead of giving me a few minutes to process the plot (which is ridiculously confusing at times) and themes, we're instead left bracing ourselves for the next scene of depravity.


OWLMAN'S REVIEW: While watching SFMV, I couldn't help recalling my own bitter memories of a tragic moment several years ago. A very dear female friend of mine was found stabbed to death and her body dumped in a hockey equipment bag behind a hotel. While her family grieved, my own grief got to the point where it degenerated into pure, unadulterated rage. That rage then further declined into murderous thoughts when they finally caught the bastard who did it.

During that time, I kept wondering whether it would be prudent for me to step into the courtroom proceedings and give that motherfucker his due, courtesy of me and Ginsu, regardless of the cost. To me, it just seemed like the only right thing to do, given the circumstances.

Which is where SFMV comes in. This movie brought that whole scenario rushing back to my mind. Like Eq says in his review, there are no real evil people here (other than the black market human organ thieves) - the main characters simply fall into a downward spiral as a result of unfortunate circumstances that befall them. Watching Ryu and Park make their swift and parallel moral decline due to their equal burning search for vengeance was heartbreaking because it made me realize how easy it could be for anyone to do the same.

It is mainly because of how that message was delivered by Park Chan-Uk that I highly recommend this fantastic film.

However, I must also point out the masterful direction, cinematography, and acting of SFMV. The director used a lot of long takes that offered up an entrancing look into the daily tribulations of Ryu - his work at the electronics manufacturing plant, his journey back home, and his care for his ailing sister. While the movie moved in a slow pace, it wasn't to the point where it induced sleep. Quite frankly, I think too many people expected a nail-biter with lots of explosions and bodies. SFMV was obviously nothing like that - suspense came in the form of wondering what Ryu and Park were going to do to each other as it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that both were going to kill each other. 

Violence came in a shocking manner. It wasn't so much the gore of bloodletting, which was not as extreme as some would have led you to believe. It was really the delivery of it after such a lull. Like I said above, you knew that violence was going to eventually happen, but after getting used to ordinary citizens like Ryu and Park, it came as a shock that such individuals could be capable of delivering it in such fashion. When you combined the violence with the leisurely pace of the rest of the film, it played out almost like a Takeshi Kitano film.

As for the acting, Shin Ha-Kyun met the challenge of portraying Ryu with all emotions and thoughts solely through facial expressions and actions - a challenge that he met very well. Song Kang-Ho played out the role of Park just as well, starting off as a fairly happy and successful company president and gradually declining into a raging father. Bae Doo-Na portrayed Yongmi as a really annoying bitch at first but it became clear that her character was very important as a catalyst for everything and she did just fine.

In summary, SFMV comes highly recommended, if not for the jarring message that it delivers, then for its wonderful direction and characterization.


EQUINOX21'S REVIEW: Park Chan-wook is at it again. After all the high praise he received for his masterpiece J.S.A., he got the chance to finish his Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance project that he'd started working on even before J.S.A. What results is perhaps one of the most brilliant, brutal and gritty films to ever come out of Korea.

Deaf and mute Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) dropped out of art school to work two shifts at a factory to earn some money so he could pay for medical treatment for his sick sister (Lim Ji-eun), who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. The transplant will cost 10,000,000 won (roughly $8500), which is all the money Ryu has to his name; they'll need a different donor, however, as Ryu and his sister have different blood types. The waiting list could be very long for a donor, so he meets with some black-market organ dealers and they come to the agreement that he'll give them one of his kidneys and the 10 million won in exchange for a matching kidney for his sister. He wakes up from his less than clean surgery only to find the dealers, along with his money and a kidney, gone. When Ryu is then fired for missing too many days of work, he and his friend, Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doo-na), take it upon themselves to kidnap the daughter of the president of his former place of employment, Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), for a 10 million won ransom. Of course, things go wrong and Park takes it upon himself to seek revenge for the death of his daughter. If this has you confused, don't worry; watching the movie is far easier to follow and far more enjoyable, I'm sure.

There is so much to love about this movie. For one, there are no bad guys in this movie (with the possible exception of the organ dealers), everyone simply does what they feel is the right thing to do at any particular time. Whether what they do is bad or not, does not make the characters bad in and of themselves. Another thing is the direction and visual artistry that are absolutely stunning. This has some of the most beautiful, yet extremely simple, images yet filmed. A third is the acting, which shines. The three lead actors all bring far more to their characters than you would ever expect to see. Finally, the brutality of this movie is completely justified and almost artful, albeit difficult to watch at times. All these things together make for one of the most enjoyable films of 2002.

The most interesting elements of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are the two main characters, Ryu and Park. The fact that Ryu is a deaf/mute is discussed, but never becomes the major focus of the story. It is simply a trait of his character that is accepted and no one makes a big deal of. Ryu simply deals with the life he's dealt, difficulties and all. Park on the other hand seems to have almost everything going his way; president of a successful electronics company, plenty of money and a loving daughter. When his daughter is taken from him, he decides to sell the company and his house so as to devote all his time and effort to seeking vengeance. He stops at nothing to get it. As stated before, neither of the characters take the actions they do because they're bad people, they're just in situations where they feel the things they do are for the right reasons.

There isn't much that Park Chan-wook could have done to make this a better film, it is very nearly perfect as is. It's extremely different from, yet just as enjoyable as, his previous film Joint Security Area. If you want to see a terrific looking, extremely brutal yet highly enjoyable character study, see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as soon as possible. 


JOE909'S REVIEW: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not a pleasant movie to watch. In many ways, it represents all that is good and bad about Korean cinema. Good because of the lush cinematography and effective acting, bad due to the snail's pace and overt exposition. 

MPM's review below goes into great detail about the plot, so I will just leave it that Sympathy is a morbid tale that is nearly Shakespearean in its darkness. And it is this darkness that leaves such a bad taste in the viewer's mouth. There are no redeeming, tension-relieving qualities in Sympathy. The lush cinematography lingers over horrifying images, such as a dead bodies floating in a lake, or bloody bags of human remains resting on the ground. 

Like most Korean movies, it takes quite some time for the plot to kick into gear. It is this casual pace that most turns me off to Korean movies. I'm as much for jumping on a bandwagon as the next guy, but I still need some convincing when it comes to Korean cinema. The ones I have seen take too many of the bad qualities of Japanese cinema (slow pace, tedious melodrama) and too little of the good qualities (i.e. economical storytelling) of Western/Hong Kong-style cinema. 

Undoubtedly Korean films look better than any other Asian cinema; most of them look like they could've been produced by a fat-walleted Hollywood production company. I think it is this aspect that has drawn Hong Kong movie addicts to Korean cinema. I also feel that the average HK film-watcher has gotten older, perhaps mellowed with age, and so is open to movies that are less frenetic. 

All told, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a dour, downbeat, modern film noir that isn't afraid to show images most other films would shy from. I didn't like it, but I still respect the director's vision, and his conviction in releasing such a non-crowd pleaser after the well-received "JSA."

JOE909'S RATING: 6.5/10

MIGHTY PEKING MAN'S REVIEW: Human responsibility may lead to failure, failure may lead to psychotic behavior, and psychotic behavior may lead to death and violence. Damn, what a crazy world we live in. Just watch the news and see for yourself...kidnappings, rapings, school shoot-outs and digit-old beauty contestants found dead...and that's just the tip of the ice berg. Let's not forget global terrorism, even though we'd like to. The thing is, there is an untold story behind every little/big crime or wrong doing, some of which are misunderstandings - then you got the fools that are getting away with murder. I guess my point is simple: this is one fucked up world we live in. 

I don't watch the news unless something big happens. Believe it or not, the last time I was actually glued to the news or TV was during 9/11/01, who wasn't? As far as watching the news daily, no way. I refuse to sit there and let those media people fry my brain with all the bullshit happening. So if I don't watch the news, what exactly triggered my mind to start thinking about this joyful world we live in? The answer is simple, a Korean flick called "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance". Nice title eh? 

If you've read the plot description at the top of this page, there's not much more I want to say in that aspect. Let me give ya some production insight...It's directed by Park Chan-Uk, the stud responsible for making "JSA" - and if you've seen that, you know the guy can make one helluva film. "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" stars Song Kang-Ho ("Foul King", "JSA", "Shiri"), Shin Ha-Gyun ("Guns & Talks"), and Bae Doo-Na ("Barking Dogs Never Bite" and "The Ring Virus") - all of which give magnificent performances, and that's an understatement. 

Unlike "JSA", Park Chan-Uk's debut feature, "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" is less mainstream and definitely not intended for all audiences. It has an underground-feel to it, even with the familiar cast. Downbeat, disturbing and at times, very violent. There's hardly any dialogue due to the film's plot-structure (Shin Ha-Gyun plays a deaf-mute) and a soundtrack is almost nowhere to be found. For sure, it'll give any viewer a strange, but satisfying experience.

Highly recommended. That's all you need to know. See it, buy it, kill someone for it. No, don't do that. 

Footnote: In comparison to "JSA", "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" did not fare well at the box-office. The unsettling subject matter coupled with audience' expectations of a film similar to "JSA". Park Chan-Uk is far from a sell-out. :)