‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’


Arevenge tragedy as brutal and Byzantine as Titus Andronicus, Park Chanwook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance accomplishes a miraculous feat by being harrowing and humane in equal measure. One misfortune piles hard upon another in a breathless domino effect precipitated by a woman’s kidney disease: For want of a suitable donor, her deaf-mute brother Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) visits a black-market ring, which leads to organ theft, which in turn prompts kidnapping, suicide, and several revenge killings of Jacobean savagery. To divulge any more would compromise a drama that is predicated on a stupefying succession of human suffering. But what elevates Sympathy above mere sensationalism—and the misanthropic meting out of punishment in its successor Oldboy—is an acute social conscience. No director diagnoses the dolorous underbelly of contemporary Korea as perceptively as Park, who examines a nation reeling from economic free fall: unemployed masses, unmoved (and even bemused) employers, Seoul blanketed in shantytowns of which the upper class is blissfully unaware, and hospitals treating only those who can pay. Though deserving of retribution, Ryu acts out of a deterministic miasma of human indifference—precisely why there is sympathy for this avenger.