Colin Moore takes a look at a Asian Cinema/DVD
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Howdy, Colin Moore here.
I’m now based in Asia so the boss thought it’d be a good idea to doodle up a column every week (or so) about the films, dvds and movie happenings of my neck of the woods.
I’ll just crack the top off a beer and we’ll get straight to edition 1…
I was still spending my nights in a corner, flicking the table lamp on and off from the effects of “Oldboy” when I picked up a copy of Park Chan Wook’s earlier amorality tale, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” (the Korean translation reads an even less cozy “Vengeance is Mine”) It’s first in what some are calling his trilogy of revenge dramas. It does more than paint the red door black; try setting it ablaze until it flakes, then wetting the remnants with the froth of a dying street dog…or thereabouts.
The world seems to know right from wrong, but getting there is an entirely different matter. Ryu stands out in every way. The green haired deaf/mute has a problem bigger than either hair or communication. It’s revealed in the film’s opening scene in a radio broadcast written by Ryu and read over the airwaves to his sister. She’s dying of kidney failure and Ryu has resolved to save her by donating one of his own. It doesn’t happen. Their blood types are mismatched and the transplant is nixed. The following scene is a simple example of at least two things that Chan-wook does well: present curious visuals that explain themselves after they’ve gotten your attention, and reveal blips of Korean culture that, at least to foreign eyes, appear tongue in cheek. Two plumped up men slap stickers about the men’s room (an actual marketing technique only out-weirded by folks on scooters flicking business cards onto storefronts). Ryu looks up from nature’s business to read one. Organ sales.
Desperate, Ryu agrees to swap his kidney and 10 million won (10,000 U.S.) for a kidney to match his sister’s. It’s one in a series of bad decisions that ultimately doom Ryu and those around him. Welcome to Wook’s World. Ryu is left penniless and naked in an abandoned concrete building. A nasty incision above the hip is enough to prove that at least the dealers profited. The all nude hitch-hiking scene that follows could easily be dragged out of any male’s bad dream file. To add insult to injury, the hospital then announces that a matching kidney has been found. For 10 million won, it’s his, or rather hers. His dumbfounded expression wouldn’t need a voice if he had one. Plan B. Ryu and his leftwing radical girlfriend, the equally misguided brains behind the pair, plan to kidnap his now ex-boss’s daughter for ransom, buy the kidney, and save his sister. Things go downhill from here. What happens next gives Act 1 all the giddiness of a Teletubbies episode.
Kang Ho-Sang plays Park Dong-jin, respectfully known as President Park, the company owner and single father of the daughter they choose to kidnap instead (he’ll be tormented again by a slimier daughter-napping in 2006s “The Host”). They botch it. The daughter drowns while Ryu buries his sister by the river-bed they played by as children. Confused? At this point, details are pointless if you’ve seen it, and spoilers if you haven’t. More importantly, the story shifts to Park, his emotional decline, and eventual spinout into revenge mode. As subterranean as you’ll feel watching Park being put through the paces of Anguish 101, (his daughter’s autopsy is particularly unnerving, but why is he watching?) it’s an unexpected twist and particularly good at throwing a bag over preconceived notions of good guy/bad guy. Neither Ryu nor Park can be called hero or villain. They’re as normal as anyone in their world until they’re forced to react to events outside their control. Only then do things get ugly. Chan-wook seems as aware as any filmmaker since Hitchcock and Kubrick that black and white are more likely to exist only when someone hasn’t looked long enough. It’s an approach he also used in the 1999 hit, “JSA,” and the Japanese manga adaptation, “Oldboy.” Unfortunately for weak stomachs, are the extremes he uses to show that indeed we all belong to the same desparate race. But sometimes a point is made with extremes. Could a family’s love for a slobbery house pet be shown better without its disruptive antics? I think not, hence, “Beethoven.” And could a Kansas business grad better prove his longing to cut it in the corporate world without resorting to impersonation and sleeping with close relatives? Not a chance, hence, “The Secret of My Success.”
The true villains are the black market organ dealers. They apply their violence with no higher morality involved. It makes their deaths more satisfying, but not enough to feel that Ryu, Park (and others) are somehow vincidated when they finally die. No, the deaths of these secondary characters are meaningless in comparison. Thought it could be the point, or one of them. Killing is killing. Whether for profit, love, revenge, or accident, there are no happy endings. When he finally links the death with the people responsible, Park goes after them. Ryu’s girlfriend meets him first. In another aside to Korean culture, a delivery boy interrupts her torture, griping about having to make the trip for one lousy order. Park helps himself to the food while his captive expels fluid on the floor ten feet away. Curiously, he kills her by electrocuting her via the earlobes, reducing her to something of a Ryu herself.
Like “Oldboy,” this is a fascinating look at a world you hope stays ficticious. People are sympathetic but stand no chance. “Sympathy,” favors a style of filmmaking that appreciates the visual over heaping amounts of dialogue. It’s what makes the film so watchable and hard to watch, because the window we’re being given a look through is a graphic path to total failure. Here, even good intentions are meaningless. But there is a bright side, and not because of something I read or heard, but because I’ve chosen to look for one. You gotta try. In the face of all obstacles, environmental or man-made, you gotta find a way. Just be aware of “the way” you choose. So there, we’ve got our happy ending. Still gonna need that table lamp though.