The Daily Stream: In Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Everyone Has Their Reasons For Revenge

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance"

Where You Can Stream It: Tubi, Vudu 

The Pitch: Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is a deaf-mute man in South Korea, slaving away at a grueling factory job to pay for his ill sister's (Im Ji-eun) kidney transplant. Frustrated by the hospital's bureaucratic inability to find a matching donor, he makes a foray into the black market that leaves him ripped off and down one of his own kidneys. Worse still, a donor for his sister is finally found, but now he doesn't have the money to pay for the operation. Ryu and his girlfriend, the anarchist Yeong-mi (Bae Doona), plot to extort local businessman Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho) by kidnapping his young daughter Yu-sun (Han Bo-bae). 

From there, things get worse for everybody.

Why it's essential viewing

2022 sees the release of director Park Chan-Wook's latest film, "Decision to Leave." That's why now is a perfect time to go back and revisit Park's earlier films, "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" definitely included. 

The film is the first of Park's thematic "Vengeance" trilogy, followed by "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance." The set-up of "Mr. Vengeance" is different from its two successors though. Those films focused on a single protagonist out to avenge long-past wrongs committed by a clear evil. Here, things are a bit murkier; it's a group of people doing reprehensible things to each other for understandable and human reasons. When Dong-jin finally confronts Ryu, he even admits that he seems like a good guy — which is why he should understand that Dong-jin has to kill him.

While "Mr. Vengeance" is a grim film, it's also an entertaining one. Between the characters' constant screw-ups and the black comedy, it sometimes feels like a Coen Brothers movie transposed to Korea. The formula — a black comedy ensemble where twists pile onto twists — is one that Park would revisit with his excellent 2016 thriller "The Handmaiden."

Every death in "Mr. Vengeance" (and there are plenty) pushes the story in a totally new direction. The violence comes in short bursts, making it all the more shocking. Yet, the cleanest death is also the most jaw-dropping. It happens as a brief, background interruption in a steady wide shot, so like Ryu, you don't realize what's happened until it's too late.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind

There are two ways you can make a revenge movie. It can either be a cathartic exercise in punishing the wicked, à la "Death Wish" or "John Wick," or if you're feeling more meditative, it can be a condemnation of its own genre. Vengeance is a cycle and all who choose to ride it will fall.

Despite how morbidly fun it can be, "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" is definitely one of the latter. Take Dong-jin's character arc; he's an ordinary father out to avenge his daughter by killing her kidnappers. In another movie, he could be the clean-cut hero. He isn't because the first half of the film is focused on those very kidnappers. When he begins his quest, it's to hurt other people we've already become invested in.

Different characters wear the title of "Mr. Vengeance" throughout the film and that's why the "Sympathy" portion of the title is crucial: each one has a good reason for taking their revenge. At the same time, they're still snuffing out someone just as human as they are. 

"Vengeance is wrong" is an old-hat theme, explored by writers older than cinema itself, from William Shakespeare to Alexandre Dumas. But just because a message is familiar doesn't make it any less poignant.