Park Chan-wook’s extreme style knows no bounds. From auditory sycopathy to masterful mood manipulation, his 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shows that even heinous violence can be truly introspective and eerily beautiful.
Beneath the quite jarring violence of Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance lies a sophisticated story of desperation, grief, and social strife in modern South Korea. Richly textured scenes, extreme camera angles, and unusual sound editing act as a unique style of emotionally charged dialogue—a kind of surreal visual poetry. This approach to mise-en-scène not only connects viewers with each character in the film, but creates a stunning existential vantage point with which to explore both complex human emotion and the immense social pressures faced in Korea today.
Sympathy is, first and foremost, a story of revenge. The film brazenly illustrates the complex emotions brought on by extreme loss, and ponders the unthinkable actions to which the common man might turn under severe duress. Such themes have become quite prominent (and profitable at the box office) in South Korea’s contemporary cinema, perhaps due to the country’s rocky past (unknown). Although Korea is flourishing now more than ever, the rapid climb to stability and wealth has been incredibly turbulent and violent. Moreover, the recent boom in prosperity has burdened citizens with overwhelming pressure to succeed, leading to an exceedingly high suicide rate, and earning Korea the title “Suicide Capital of the World” (Victoria). The discomfort with which citizens might view their country’s past, present, and future (unknown) undeniably resonates in Park Chan-wook’s devastatingly fatalistic film.
The world of Sympathy exists beneath the shiny veneers of prosperity, and opens the door to a greater understanding of the underlying adversity and pain in Korean society. The first half of the film focuses on Ryu, a lower-class factory worker desperately trying to save his sister from terminal organ failure. Because Ryu is a deaf-mute, dialogue is sparse throughout the film. In its place, Park uses syncopic sound editing in order to submerge viewers in Ryu’s silent and desperate world. This captivating technique employs momentary losses of auditory cues to propel the narrative (Yecies), and to inspire a greater connection with Ryu’s character. When seen from his point of view, sound of the world is eerily deadened. These sound “blackouts” create an uncomfortable tension akin to the urgency felt by both Ryu’s character and Korea’s struggling poor.
Further auditory techniques reflect Ryu’s plight and serve as a complex form of character development. In place of a musical score, Sympathy focuses on the mundane sounds of the city which are so frequently over-looked in life both off and on screen. Park explained of this approach, “Most commercial movies explain everything, and everybody just talks. But I wanted to use very little dialogue, and convey my message through sound and mise-en-scène” (4, Crawford). The resulting atmosphere is charged with intense feeling, and sets the stage for both psychological and social examination. The fact that Ryu, himself, cannot hear what is commonly taken for granted forces viewers into a hyper-awareness, allowing even the whirr of an electric fan to slather a scene in melancholy.
Color and texture play an equally important role in setting the tone for Sympathy. In the case of films, ColorMood analysis suggests that, although emotions may be stirred by specific objects or events, the psychological effect is relatively impermanent next to that of a well-crafted “mood” (Wei, Dimitrova, Chang). The richness of color, light, and sound in Sympathy immerses viewers in an uncomfortable yet receptive state of mind. Ryu’s world is littered with sickly, faded hues, as if to personify the bleak hardships faced by Korea’s lower class. The train station he frequents is bathed in dim, green tinged fluorescents, the rough and dull patterned wall paper of his home is cracked and peeling, his hair is dyed a ruddy green—even the glorious light of summer is dampened by a subtly over-laid sepia filter, making the film’s quiet moments eerily tranquil and dream-like. This almost tactile coloring absorbs the audience in the bleak mood of the film more-so than any specific event might hope to accomplish.
Having been fully immersed in Ryu’s psyche through a delicately crafted atmospheric mood, viewers are willing to accept and legitimize the actions he resorts to. With no hope of legally finding his sister an organ donor before her time runs out, Ryu turns to dealers on the black market. After draining his meager savings and offering an organ of his own in trade, he undergoes surgery at their malicious hands. Here, Park uses syncopic visual editing (Yecies) to both convey emotion and imply an unfolding of events. Through a string of brief shots and visual blackouts, the narrative skips an entire day. The audience needn’t witness the dirty “doctors” disappearing with Ryu’s payment and flesh to understand that he has been deceived. In a sadistically comic twist of irony, he is immediately called to the hospital to receive news that a donor has been found for his sister. Having spent the last of his money on the failed illegal transaction, he is unable to afford the operation. Amongst the heavy mood of hopelessness lies a brutal commentary on Korea’s struggling poor.
Ryu’s hardships mirror those faced by South Korea’s lower class, whose entire families must survive on meager incomes from manual labor. Sympathy constantly explores the psychology of hardship, and calls into question the severe reactions that are possible when someone is pushed to act beyond reason. A chillingly poignant example is offered with the introduction of Ryu’s wealthy former boss, Dong-jin. The short scene shows Dong-jin faced by one of his disgruntled employees, whose incredible grief and desperation has inspired him to commit gruesome self-mutilation. The man’s violent actions, juxtaposed with Dong-jin’s calm reaction, illustrates the vast inequality of wealth, and the apathy with which the financially secure citizens of a modern capitalistic Korea view the poor and struggling (Koo).
As a desperate member of the working class, Ryu is forced to act outside the realm of right and wrong. With his sister’s life quickly fading, he is pushed beyond self-sacrificial methods, and instead turns his attentions toward kidnapping Dong-jin’s daughter, Yoosun, for ransom. Syncopic editing, once again, leaves out the seemingly important action of the kidnapping itself, in order to focus awareness on the event’s psychological impact on each character. Shots linger on seemingly insignificant moments—the paused, peaceful images that occur between extreme pain and violence (Oscura). The muffled sound of Yoosun’s off-screen cartoons blanket the scene in tranquility, and the happy orange of her summer dress invites an air of hope that the scheme will work, hence saving Ryu’s sister. Their fleeting bliss is abruptly cut short when reality strikes. With another blast of irony, the naïve and innocent Yoosun unknowingly, and off-handedly, hands Ryu his own sister’s suicide letter. Park’s control over every element of mise-en-scene allows for the scene to drastically shift in an instant. The previously harmless sound of cartoons becomes laden with urgent anxiety as the text of her final letter quickly flashes across the screen. The warm light of the living room is abandoned for the sickly tones of the bathtub where she has forfeited life.
The final and most drastic use of mise-en-scène as emotional magnification comes with Sympathy’s extreme camera angles. Throughout the film, the visual space is somehow distorted, off-kilter, or set from an unusual height. This gives the audience an existential vantage point with which to examine each character’s inner chaos, without the use of dialogue. Several key scenes serve as examples: When Ryu finds his sister’s body, the visual field is focused both on his grief stricken face and her blood-stained arm draped over the bathtub in the foreground. Shot from a low, skewed angle, the bloody water of the bathtub crowds the image, saturating the scene in claustrophobic tragedy. The effect exemplifies Ryu’s unbearable sadness on a multidimensional level.
As Ryu methodically covers his sister’s body in stones by a peaceful river, the camera looms dramatically overhead. The bird’s eye shot, repeated in the film only in moments of intense but hidden pain, leaves one with a feeling of oppressive confusion (Chae). Viewers feel the smallness, the weakness, and the inferiority of human kind in these moments. In a sense, Sympathy’s camera broadens the emotional scope of the film to explore the universal, psychological nature of hardship, beyond the constructs of wealth and social standing.
Even Sympathy’s most extreme acts of unthinkable cruelty and violence are framed for maximum emotional impact. Instead of merely focusing on obvious, gory shock value, Park again utilizes his evolved sense of mise-en-scène to inspire deeper feeling and connection. Hence, it is not surprising that perhaps the most intimate moment of the film is also its most unsettling. As Dong-jin electrocutes Yong-min (Ryu’s girlfriend and partner-in-crime), his apathetic expression is captured from a spying angle shot from beneath her chair. The image mirrors Ryu’s moment of discovering his sister’s body, though the heinous deed has evolved from a tragic mistake to that of unapologetically evil revenge. Dong-jin’s hunched, uncaring stature is seen from a visual field overtaken by her naked foot, her leg pulsing with electricity and soaked in piss. Though the image is brief, its power is incredibly moving, and illustrates just how far a tragic loss can warp one’s sense of right and wrong.
Park’s use of extremes, in combination with an eye for subtle detail, brings a poignant sadness to Sympathy. Through calculated interweaving of unique auditory and visual elements, its narrative draws on the intimate complexities of the human psyche. More specifically, the syncopic editing, richness of color, and extreme camera angles combine to give the film a sophisticated platform from which to explore the social attitudes of South Korea’s uneasy citizens, and the hardships faced amongst the country’s struggling lower class. The over-saturated mood and hyper-stylized atmosphere at times makes the film emotionally exhausting, yet Park reminds us that “watching a film shouldn’t be an easy, giggling, everyday experience but a really shocking, stimulating and at times painful experience (Chae). If this type of movie were typical for this time, I wouldn’t have done it – but this darkness is part of our lives, and no one [in Korea] is dealing with it” (Crawford).
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