Revisiting movies that are parts of sets
While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance might often take a backseat to Park Chanwook's follow-up, Oldboy, when it comes to international recognition, but in a more subdued and careful way, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance stands up to its more popular successor, thanks to strong visual presence, a well crafted, echoing story, and excellent performances all around. Even without the increasing flash of Park's later films, Sympathy still manages to weave together some mesmerizing moments into a dark story of cascading sins.
It all starts with a sick sister (Im Jieun) in need of a kidney transplant. Deaf-mute brother Ryu (Shin Hagyoon) makes a deal with some black market organ dealers, but ends up losing both his kidney and the money he had saved up to pay for his sister's operation. Having lost his job, his girlfriend, Cha Youngmi (Bae Doona), suggests that they kidnap his rich ex-boss' kid and return her for ransom to cover the costs. Of course, that would be too obvious, so they instead kidnap the daughter of his wealthy neighbor, Park Dongjin (Song Kangho), and every seems like it's on track, but these things rarely go as planned and the titular campaigns for vengeance begin.
What the film achieves well is in painting a mirror-like picture of revenge for both Ryu and Dongjin, as each loses someone they love, sparking their murderous vendettas and despite how Ryu is poor and disadvantaged and Dongjin is wealthy and able at the start, the film shows that in the end, they both choose to end up in the same place, with no one coming up a moral victor. And even as they understand each other, the gnawing desire for vengeance swallows them as whole as Ryu's own desperation enveloped him.
If there is a weakness in the writing, part of it lies in the story structure, which is bifurcated and with Dongjin not even becoming a notable character until halfway into the movie, once his daughter, Yoosun (Han Bobae), is kidnapped. I feel the drama does manage to carry the film into the middle, but it's still a tough transition between the two protagonists and a slow, atypical start. There's also a little bit of a plot hole during the transition and the film either takes too much plot development off screen or simply contrives the mystery element of the film so it's too easily solved, but it admittedly hurts the already slow and wobbly middle of the film.
While Sympathy doesn't have a lot of violence, the violence that is in the film can be rather gruesome, so those with weak stomachs might beware of the film. Otherwise, Sympathy is a very clear case for Park Chanwook's directorial abilities, filled with mesmerizing images and sounds, including several intense, breathtaking or captivating moments, even when there is an abundance of blood involved. But even outside of the violence, like the framing of a climb up a staircase where Ryu will make a choice that creates the slippery slope of decisions in the film, gives a clear idea of Park's apparent mastery of visual storytelling.
And this also extends into the way that sound is incorporated in the film with lots of play taking advantage of Ryu's deafness, even extending into a number of inter-titles to help express the thoughts that Ryu can't speak. Furthermore, the soundtrack itself is an interesting mix of classical scoring and the presence of UhUhBoo Project, handling the memorable theme to the film. Finally, the performances from the lead cast are impressive, with Shin managing his deaf-mute character well. I think some of the narrative weakness in the middle of the film does make Song's transformation a little harder to swallow, but he still manages to capture his character's feeling that his decisions are inevitable and by the end of the film, he convinces.
The first time I watched Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I was utterly blown away by the encapsulation and exploration of the theme of vengeance, how well the story tied its two lead characters in parallel with each other, and the remarkable attention to visual and aural detail. This later viewing does betray a few weaknesses in the storytelling, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn't still captivated by everything that impressed me before. Sympathy is clearly a hallmark in the career of Park Chanwook, a film that declares a strong directorial voice and vision with its bravura study of the darkness in humanity. 9/10.