Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf-mute dedicated to his sister, who will die if she doesn’t receive a kidney transplant. In desperation, Ryu gives every penny he has to a gang of underground organ-dealers. But when they rip him off and a legitimate kidney becomes available at the hospital, Ryu and his political activist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae) are forced to find the money elsewhere. So they kidnap the daughter of Ryu’s billionaire ex-boss Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song) but the scheme goes horribly wrong. Dong-jin is left with one thought – revenge.
Chan-wook Park’s snarling rottweiler of a film is the sort of bloody tragedy where no one, good or bad, emerges happily. Not that any of the characters are particularly good – Ryu may love his sister but has few qualms about abducting a little girl or brutally murdering the unscrupulous organ dealers. Dong-jin’s pain is matched only by his willingness to dish out horrific torture to avenge his loss. One can only imagine the psychological pain that these people undergo; nevertheless, their ability to inflict physical suffering upon one another still shocks.
Park has little problem delivering some jaw-droppingly nasty sequences, but like Takeshi Kitano or Martin Scorsese, he tempers the bloodletting with an arresting visual style. Some scenes have an almost hypnotic calm to them, and Park will sometimes cut away to a long shot while the most graphic violence is happening before switching to a close-up for the gruesome aftermath. The camera doesn't moves unless it has to, and cinematographer Byung-il Kim finds beauty in even the grimmest milieu. The narrative is less strong – a couple of confusing subplots are introduced almost absent-mindedly, and there’s an absurd contrivance that leads Dong-jin to Ryu. That said, even given the sometimes languid pace, the film grips like a vice as one horrifying event piles on top of another.
The sound design is also worthy of mention. There’s little musical score – perhaps to mirror Ryu’s inability to hear or speak – but a terrific sense of unease is created by the use of ambient noise. Key moments are punctuated by a jarring, squealing saxophone, and even worse is the sound produced by the electrical generator that Dong-jin uses to extract information in the film’s most gruelling scene. The chilling, deafening hum will stay with you for days.
In many ways Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is an exercise in shock, but it’s not without heart. With no dialogue, Ha-kyun Shin ably conveys the pain of a man doing everything he can to stop the world from crashing around him, and if Kang-ho Song is more inscrutable as the vengeful father, he's no less convincing. There is perhaps little depth here, but the force of Park’s film remains undeniable.
Controversial Korean director with a strong visual sense. Made his debut in 2000 with the powerful political thriller JSA, which dealt with the divide between North and South Korea. Follow-up Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a gruelling tale of revenge, and Park contributed to the human rights anthology If You Were Me. Oldboy was another acclaimed revenge movie, while Cut was Park's entry into the Asian horror anthology Three... Extremes. In 2005, Park completed his 'revenge trilogy' with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. He received mixed reviews for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, with his modern day vampire story Thirst seen as a major return to form. His first English-language work was the reserved horror drama Stoker which he followed with arthouse hit The Handmaiden.