I have never seen a film that captures dramatic tragedy better than Chan-wook Park’s Boksuneun naui geot or, to us non-Hangul speakers, Sympathy for Mr. Vengance. This film has all the epic tragedy of something by Sophocles or Shakespeare; and it has all the concomitant blood and tears. I grit my teeth throughout, except for the moments where I was taking sharp in-breaths in the “a-ha” moments as threads collapsed together in a symphonic story-path.

Simply put, a poor factory worker arranges to sell a kidney and give 5million won to shady organ harvesters so as to acquire a kidney suitable for his ailing sister. The harvesters double-cross him, a miracle organ arrives for his sister and he is now short a kidney and broke. This leads him to kidnapping and from there it goes horribly wrong. The father seeks his vengeance, the “hero” seeks vengeance against the harvesters who instigated the long causal chain that lead to greater tragedy than could be limned in a short review.

In a fascinating direction, the one who loses truly has to take on the life of his transgressor. In so doing he resolves the mystery, grows to understand he who did him wrong, grows to understand himself, but despite this he cannot forgive the transgression and its resultant loss. The plot threads are rich and every character, no matter how small or non-relevant plays a part in facilitating a horrific and tragic resolution.

The screenwriting is painfully tight. Everything works with everything else so flawlessly you’d think it was surgically broken down from something that would have been organically grown.

Park explores the familial blood obligation in a way that is unrelenting and probing with a relentlessness that I’ve not felt since I read Antigone. Everywhere there is desperation, everywhere there is loss, everywhere there is remorse, and everywhere is the thrumming blood-law whose thirst is never satiated. It is a very, very hard movie to watch but very rewarding for people who love the craft of film.

On top of it all the acting is top-notch all the way through. While the story setup might be a bit far-fetched, seeming contrived and designed to falsely ratchet-up the intensity, the movie delivers the experience of tragedy, really Greco-Roman tragedy in a way I’ve never seen before.

I am stunned.

“If you want to live, just leave”