Picture this: you struggle to consciousness on a rough concrete floor in a building abandoned before completion. You’re cold. You’re naked. Your body is racked with pain, which you trace to the roughly-stitched wound on your side, marking where your second kidney used to be. You can scarcely stand, yet you somehow struggle down many flights of stairs to a nearby road, and try to hitch a lift back to town, because there’s no other option.
Welcome to the world of organlegging.
And welcome also to Park Chan-wook’s exceedingly uncomfortable masterpiece, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. I should warn you that this film is not for the squeamish or the sensitive. This is a film that will rip out your still-beating heart and rub it in your face. As the final credits roll, you’ll be gasping for air and feeling like a transplant patient yourself.
If you’re game for that, then you’ll find Sympathy to be an exceptional film, one that you’ll remember for years. For starters, Park has impeccable visual sense. Each shot is composed so beautifully that you’ll want to fall into the screen, which makes an odd contrast with the often harrowing subject matter. This visual beauty is complemented by Park’s addition of oddly quirky minor characters, such as the heroin-addicted organ-legging doctor, or the formation-masturbation team of boys who live next door to Ryu and his sister.
But those aspects are minor: what makes Sympathy For Mr Vengeance such a giant of a film are the story and the performances. The story, unrelenting in its savage condemnation of economic rationalist values, gives a picture of life on the margins that is at once completely ordinary and totally harrowing.
And the performances are stunning. Shin Ha-kyun (JSA), as the green-haired deaf-mute artist forced to quit art college for foundry work, then sacked from the foundry, is magnificent. He’s utterly convincing, and utterly heart-rending. Bae Doo-na (Barking Dogs Never Bite), as the fiercely independent radical girlfriend, is also captivating, with her revolutionary leaflets and ‘good kidnappings and bad kidnappings’. Song Kang-ho (Shiri, JSA, The Foul King), as the boss of Ryu and the father of the kidnapped girl, rounds out the powerful trio, portraying an ordinary man driven to extremes. All three main characters are strong and engaging, which gives this film much of its power to hurt.
There’s little in the way of soundtrack, which helps drive home the film’s stark message. Real life doesn’t have a soundtrack, just as, in real life, violence hurts a lot. The lack of soundtrack also evokes the world of Ryu, the main character, whose deafness makes him more vulnerable. In several scenes, we see the world through his eyes, in total silence. It’s an eerie contrast with the world of sound, and quite unsettling.
This is a powerful film that says much about how we organise our societies, and what turns ordinary people into monsters. It emphasises the oft-repeated point that revenge often begets more revenge, in a cycle that sucks in more and more innocent victims. And in Park’s world, we’re all potential victims, and we’re all potential monsters.