Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

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The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The Front Line (고지전) – ★★★☆☆

The Front Line (고지전)

The Front Line (고지전)

After years of intense fighting, the armies of the north and south have reached a stalemate along the 38th parallel. As the representatives of each country meet at Panmunjom to thrash out a treaty, there is one area where the war hasn’t ended; a solitary hill, which changes hands daily as each side pushes to extend their side of the border. This is the context within The Front Line (고지전), a stark and bleak narrative about the insanity of war, the stupidity of those in charge, and the lack of value that life has during conflict.

Kang Eun-pyo (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is an officer with a rather comfortable job helping his seniors at Panmunjom. Frustrated with the lack of progress made, Eun-pyo openly criticises how inept his superiors are from both countries. Unfortunately his negative comments are overheard by a high-ranking official, and Eun-pyo is demoted to serve back on the front line. However, he has another task; a letter from the north was intercepted as it made its way through the southern postal system. Eun-pyo must find the mole at the camp, and uncover why the front line’s recently deceased general was killed by his own gun. Complicating matters further, Eun-pyo’s friend Kim Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo (고수) fights there, despite his status as ‘Missing In Action.’

Kang Eun-pyo (right) interrogates his friend Kim Soo-hyeok (left)

Kang Eun-pyo (right) interrogates his friend Kim Soo-hyeok (left)

What follows is a classic case of ‘whodunit’ as Eun-pyo must find the culprit before it’s too late, yet he must also fulfill his military duties as a soldier and fight alongside the very group he is investigating, to reclaim the hill once and for all. Director Jang Hoon (장훈) and cinematographer Kim Woo-Hyung (김우형) must be congratulated for their amazing visual prowess as the battle scenes are incredible to behold. The beautiful but deadly vertical landscape is awash with mud, bodies and blood, but still the soldiers press on through trenches and jagged rocks. The sepia and washed out filters, combined with the hand-held camera movement places audiences in the center of the hike-and-fight confrontations, and drain any sense of hope and promise from the narrative. The techniques in which Jang Hoon films the hill connotes an unforgiving behemoth that can never be conquered, a barren wasteland build on the bodies of those who tried. Combined with the way the protagonists refer to it with personality traits, the hill becomes not only an insurmountable obstacle but also a discernible character in its own right.

The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The soldiers fight to reclaim the hill

The camaraderie between the soldiers is pivotal in The Front Line. Despite flaws, including morphine addiction and mental instability, the soldiers stick together as they have bonded through the horrors of warfare. When military leaders attempt to give orders, which are often ludicrous, the men tend to either ignore or refuse to follow them as they are keenly aware of the ramifications. In a country and institution so heavily reliant on obedience to superiors, the generals easily become figures of ridicule and stupidity. It is this camaraderie that makes Eun-pyo’s task so difficult, as his objectivity begins to waver as he is inaugurated into the brotherhood and the loyalty it provides. Even when representing the northern soldiers, director Jang Hoon shows the bonds between them as equally strong, yet are slightly different as senior officers such as Oh Gi-yeong (오기영) (Ryoo Seung-soo (류승수) are also involved, connoting perhaps the ideological differences. It is ultimately respect and survival instinct that enforces the ties between the soldiers, traits that the superior officers are connoted as lacking.

Camaraderie is a central theme within 'The Front Line'

Camaraderie is a central theme within ‘The Front Line’

Yet, despite the beautiful cinematography and powerful notions of camaraderie, The Front Line is not without faults. The crux of the story – the insanity of fighting for a hill – becomes almost redundant under the weight of other convoluted narrative threads. This serves to lessen the intensity and futility of the situation(s) throughout the film, although in the final moments the impending sense of doom and the horror of war is thankfully revisited and enforced to poignant effect. The various narrative tangents also undermine Eun-pyo’s mission, the results of which are far from original and explored to greater effect in films such as JSA – Joint Security Area (공동경비구역 JSA). It’s a shame given the potential of the premise, for what could have been a powerful debate on the futility of war has resulted in a merely quite interesting one. However, The Front Line is certainly worth watching for the sumptuous art direction and heart-wrenching finale, and serves as another poignant reminder that ‘The Forgotten War’ is nothing of the sort.

★★★☆☆

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