Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the first and most anarchic film in Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy – possibly the most anarchic film in his career. On the one hand, there is an intricate plot here, one that rewards rewatching and often only ramifies retrospectively, so layered and embedded does it become at key moments. At the same time, Park also traffics in a taste for incongruity and unexpected transitions, producing a genuinely unpredictable trajectory that intersects with his intricate narrative to create a singularly surreal experience. On the face of it, the story revolves around five main characters. First, we have Ryu, a deaf-mute man, played by Shin Ha-Kyun, who works in a factory. Second, we have Ryu’s unnamed sister, played by Im Ji-eun, who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Third, we have Ryu’s radical anarchist girlfriend, Cha Yeong-Mi, played by Bae Doona. Fourth, we have Park Dong-jin, the president of a manufacturing company, played by Song Kang-ho. And finally, fifth, we have Yu-sun, Dong-jin’s young daughter, played by Han Bo-bae. Hyu, who is not a match for his sister, makes a deal with a group of black market dealers to exchange his kidney for a viable organ, but is cheated, at which point Yeong-Mi suggests he kidnap Bo-bae, and hold her for ransom, only for his strategy to go horribly awry when she accidentally drowns.
Twenty years later, the western world has become acclimatised to the cinema of South Korea, and its unique ability to hybridise different genres into strange and emergent tonalities, to the point where many films and television series play like an irreducible and singular genre of one. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance occurs earlier in that evolution, which makes its weirdness all the remarkable so far down the track. That’s a testament to Park as a visual storyteller, since this is above all an imagistic film, driven by extraordinary transitions, abbreviated and elliptical scenes, a futuristic angularity and austerity, all of which serve a lush and exotic sense of space. When formulating his plan, Hyu threads beads along a string, and this process, which recurs at significant moments throughout the film, also feels like a cipher for the film itself – an ostensibly linear device upon which Park adds one increasingly incongruous ingredient after another, without ever quite compromising the sliding and slippery unity of the whole.
That incongruity inevitably breeds an absurdist sense of humour, which frequently turns nihilistic in the midst of scenes of extreme ultra-violence. Just as this dark comedy emerges from the transitions and aporia between scenes, it clusters around the disjunctions between sound and image that stem from Hyu’s deaf-muteness. His condition makes him more attuned, in an offbeat way, to the residue of weird white noise that is always hovering around the edges of Park’s mise-en-scenes and denaturing their tonality, even if his inability to speak means that he eventually has to resort to violence as a means of expression. Through Hyu, Park moves beyond both absurdity and nihilism to create a comedy and cinema of oblivion – a studied oblivion to what is supposed to count as traditional character, narrative and tonality. Hyu moves through a world whose cues often escape him, but is also preternaturally aware of phenomena that remain invisible to the other characters, producing a pervasive sense of mutual oblivion; drives and desires operating blindly as they propel characters through space.
For that reason, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is perhaps most memorable for its depictions of space, and specifically for the way it envisions a burgenoning hyper-real Seoul. Every location, from the most rural fringes to the most futuristic buildings, feels as if it has just been formed, or imbued with a new essence by Park’s camera, which adds a veneer of virtuality to everything it lights upon. When Hyu first abducts Dong-jin, he carries him to a mountain park that offers a soaring panoramic vantage point of all the other parts of the cityscape we have seen so far, and yet at this very moment of scopic closure Park cuts to a video game, splintering and fracturing the “real” world into so many virtual mediations. Similarly, the only place where this putative real world meets up with Hyu’s deaf-mute oblivion is in the shell of a half-built skyscraper where he first meets with the black market organ dealers. Here, the ambience of wind blowing across empty floors tallies with the white noise he permanently hears as his blood pumps through his ears to his viscera and back again. Yet this moment of naturalism, and harmony between Hyu’s body and the world around it, is quickly deformed by a hyper-hallucinatory ellipsis that sees him awake to realise that his kidney has been stolen with no remuneration, in a moment of epiphany that places the revenge narrative in motion.
No surprise, then, that this revenge narrative quickly moves away from conventional coordinates, first by blending into Dong-jin’s desire to avenge his daughter’s death, and then through the broader fracturing of the narrative into a kaleidoscope of different affects, attitudes and atmospheres. The viscerality and vitality of revenge becomes a fantasy of recovering the different shards of the film, and restoring the naturalistic tonality of an older kind of cinema, but like all revenge, it is always already too late for Hyu, Dong-jin and the audience to achieve this catharsis. Instead, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance remains in a state of comically wilful oblivion to the very end, professing ignorance for what a film is supposed to be, in order to expand the definition of what film can become – for film as a futuristic medium.