Very early in Park Chanwook’s fantastic Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there’s a scene where four boys are leaning their ears against a wall, masturbating furiously as they listen to a woman’s moans from the apartment next door. It’s very funny, but the camera slowly slides into the next apartment and we realize that the moans aren’t sexual ecstasy but horrific pain. The woman lays on the floor on a thin mat, wracked in agony, unable to reach her medication. In the corner is her deaf-mute brother, facing away from her and so unaware of what’s going on behind him.
Is this scene a comment on us? For the next two hours of this film we will be watching these characters being systematically subjected to abject suffering, and through the artistry and genius of the director we will enjoy it.
SFMV is the first in Park’s revenge trilogy, which is wrapped up in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, now playing in Korea and soon to play the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. Its thematic sequel, Oldboy, is operatic, a grand, sweeping tale of betrayal. It has huge emotions and is filled with melodramatic moments. By contrast Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a grand guignol cartoon, the Road Runner on PCP. (It should be noted that Park Chanwook’s entry in the excellent Three… Extremes anthology film is certainly a sidebar to this trilogy)
The deaf-mute is Ryu. A desperate search for a kidney for his sister leads him to take insane steps – first he is taken by black market organ dealers who steal his kidney. Next he kidnaps his ex-boss’ daughter for ransom – and accidentally gets her killed.
The film turns into a spiral of revenge, leading to an inevitable climax. Along the way Park Chanwook presents images alternately beautiful and stomach-turning – it’s hard to watch this film and not be impressed by the man’s stunning eye. And sometimes it’s just hard to watch this film.
There are some scenes that feel gratuitous – a father watching his daughter’s autopsy, for one. But these are surprisingly few and far between. Park definitely goes to the edge here, many times, but it usually feels like there’s a point. There are many kinds of violence in film – Michael Bay excels in the violence of spectacle, which is meaningless beyond the primal thrill of seeing shit blown up; Takashi Miike is all about the violence of sociopathy, seeing how far anything can be pushed while cackling gleefully at the excess of it all. Park’s violence in SFMV is more about complicity and dread. Unlike Oldboy, which has a hero and a villain in a mostly classical sense (it’s really hard to get behind Lee Woo-Jin’s Machiavellian machinations), SFMV allows you to understand where everyone in this revenge cycle is coming from. You not only dread the horrors of the violence, you dread the fact that these characters are being reduced to that. And you feel bad, because you can understand it.
Even still, the film is filled with funny moments – gallows humor, often. It’s a brightly colored film, especially compared to the dark and slick palette of Oldboy. Park keeps things balanced well, so the humor of a black market organ dealer buying an ice cream cake just for the icy packaging is offset by a fight scene twice as brutal as Oldboy’s sidescroller, and with many, many fewer combatants.
SFMV is a cinematic tour de force, if an unrelentingly cruel one. Park Chanwook is a visionary of the highest order – I’m not worried about being hyperbolic in saying that. While SFMV isn’t as well-constructed as Oldboy (it’s too long, for one thing, and it feels like it takes forever to get to the meat of the story), it’s as disturbing and exhilarating a piece of filmmaking you’ll see for some time. At least until Sympathy for Lady Vengeance comes out next year.
8.6 out of 10