Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.

This Month: Park Chan-wook’s SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE (2002)

Rating: 57%

If Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G Inarritu are the self proclaimed “three amigos” of Mexican cinema, then perhaps Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woo and Park Chan-wook could be called the “holy trinity” of South Korean cinema. Last month we looked at director Bong’s lowest rated, so it seems only fair that his friend and producer director Park get the same reclaiming treatment.

Park’s lowest rated film sits as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance his 2002 blood soaked revenge thriller and the first part of his lauded Vengeance trilogy. The plot is deceptively simple, deaf-mute Ryu falls into debt and loses his job trying to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant, so he and his radical anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi decide to kidnap a wealthy businessman’s – Dong-jin – daughter Yu-sun. When she dies accidentally both men are taken on a quest for revenge that bloodies their hands and their souls.

Coming on the heels of his highly successful political thriller Joint Security Area, this saw a change of pace for Park, he had just had a massive box office success and so for his next film was allowed to do whatever he wanted. What he made was a film that has all the hallmarks that would mark out the rest of his career. Much like his contemporary Bong, Park is interested in political subtext. 

Tartan Films

His political and social themes have ranged from the history of North Korea and South Korea (Joint Security Area, Oldboy), Feminism (Lady Vengeance, The Handmaiden), International Politics (Joint Security Area, The Little Drummer Girl), and even organised religion (Thirst). But Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is much less focussed than his other work. Park sets up a lot of social issues – the treatment of the disabled, anarchism, the gulf between rich and poor, healthcare, the first half hour of the film essentially promises to be a Korean Ken Loach film but Park opts to upend that.

One reason it might not have fared as well is that not only is it thematically all over the place, it’s pacing is very slow. Unlike Oldboy’s non-linear storytelling, action sequences and tightly kept secrets, Sympathy plays out at a much slower pace, slowly revealing what happens in sequential order. It might be the point of the film but names of characters are not often made clear, leading you to latch onto one specific thing about each character to mark them out in the narrative.

As with any Park film the shot composition is beautiful, each frame is held long enough that you can soak up the information and detail in them. While his choice to frame many scenes at a distance from his characters, and often let the take continue for a minute or so unbroken to leave you at an emotional distance, it also distracts from the story itself. So much of the film is framed to be on the other side of the room it’s often hard to be involved in scenes that should be intimate simply because you’re so far away.

The two revenge stories are both neither devastating nor satisfying – while the revenge and twists of Oldboy leave the viewer reeling at what they have seen, and Lady Vengeance puts us right in the heart of a desire to get revenge, Sympathy shows revenge without emotional engagement. Both Ryu and Dong-jin’s plights are understandable, neither have us emotionally invested which often leaves us wondering why we’re following these two empty individuals.

Yet, the film is filled with fantastic performances. Song Kang-ho perhaps South Korea’s most important actor marks his second of three collaborations with Park, while Shin Ha-kyun manages to evoke a fully formed character without uttering a word. The mix of hollow faced reactions from Song and wide eyed confusion from Shin allow both men to never just be bloodthirsty revenge seekers.

Arguably this could be called the pre-curser to torture porn, the scenes of revenge are brutal and gory – though decidedly tamer than Park’s later works, and the sight of a dead child is used sparingly but to great affect. It all has a purpose, and Park is telling a story of social relevance. The themes of his Vengeance trilogy come down to the loss of innocence, that when the life of a child is taken people lose their souls. All three films deal in this to some degree, though his first instalment offers a much tougher moral dilemma.

Tartan Films

While Lee Geum-ja of Lady Vengeance is innocent, and Oh Dae-su of Oldboy is invariably guilty of a sin, neither man in Sympathy is guilty or innocent. Ryu kidnaps a little girl, and his lack of awareness leads to her accidental death but Dong-jin has profited off of hard labour for poor wages for a while and has no desire to change the status quo, he has put work before his family in the pursuit of more wealth. Dong-jin has allowed the system that has made Ryu desperate to flourish, and Ryu’s desperation has lead to an awful accident that has lead Dong-jin to seek revenge.

While this sort of moral grey might not sit well with audiences generally, it allows the less flashy camera and editing work of Park to work it’s magic. Unlike his second two instalments, this is a film about the mundanity of revenge, the matter-of-fact nature of it. There’s no surrealism or video-game style action here, save for a scene in which Dong-jin imagines his daughter appearing to him. Instead we are offered a film about how revenge is circular, one action leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. Every violent action leads to another violent action in a cycle of horror that has no real end.

Like so many of Park’s film, the history of the North-South conflict looms over the film. Ryu is deaf to the world, and the very real danger that Dong-jin poses, while Dong-jin uses his money and his strength to hurt Ryu, without considering reprisals from a more politically motivated faction of society. This conflict of the old and the young is what the Vengeance trilogy is about, human stories of people seeking revenge that actually speak to the North Korea-South Korea history and very real threat. Director Park presents this is such an showy manner here that many might just see it as a slow, and often very graphic, story that leaves the viewer cold – the way revenge is supposed to be.

By Paul Klein

Paul Klein is a film graduate. His favourite film is The Lion King, he still holds a candle for Sarah Michelle Gellar and does a fantastic impression of Sir Patrick Stewart. Letterboxd: paulkleinyo

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