Where to begin with Park Chan-wook

A beginner’s path through the dazzling, brutal cinema of Park Chan-wook.

11 April 2017

By Leigh Singer

Lady Vengeance (2005)

Why this might not seem so easy

Alongside his contemporary Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), Park Chan-wook perhaps best exemplifies South Korean cinema’s surging 21st century wave of global prominence. Whereas fellow countrymen like Lee Chang-dong (Poetry) and Kim Ki-duk (Moebius) remain more international festival circuit names, Park, Bong and Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Age of Shadows) have added commercial appeal to critical acclaim. In Park’s case, it’s easy to see why his hyper-stylised, pacily entertaining genre hopping has attracted fans worldwide.

A former philosophy student and sometime film critic, Park’s early filmmaking career was a stop-start affair. Indeed his first two features, The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream (1992) and its follow-up, Saminjo (Trio, 1997), both flopped and remain curiously (and no doubt deliberately) unavailable for western audiences. To all intents and purposes, the new millennium offered a fresh start – the huge domestic box-office hit of JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) plus international breakthrough at 2004’s Cannes Film Festival with the Grand Prix-winning Oldboy (2003) were the launch pad for Park’s reputation.

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And it’s some reputation: one forged in visceral tales of vengeance and violence, whose psychological deviance and pitch-black comic thrills come wrapped in sumptuous design and inventive, overt craftsmanship.

The films are at once giddily operatic and coolly detached, teasing their audience with extended dances of seduction – ravishing visuals, opulent soundtracks – and repulsion. His narratives flourish in immorality and graphic brutality. In person, his wry, enigmatic demeanour suggests it’s a game he enjoys, but his movies also make serious points about the way individuals grapple with their external environments and interior demons.

The best place to start – Oldboy

Oldboy scorched Park onto world cinema’s consciousness in ferociously uncompromising and accomplished style, so it seems fitting that newcomers should undergo similar baptism by fire. Adapted from Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s manga, it’s a full-throttle, pulse-pounding revenge thriller from dual perspectives. Its hapless protagonist Oh Dae-su (the fearsomely intense Choi Min-sik) is both victim and avenger: first he’s abducted and imprisoned for 15 years, then he’s abruptly freed and given five days to find out why by his unseen tormentor.

Oldboy (2003)

The controversial set-pieces remain notorious, from the diorama-like one-take claw hammer fight to the live octopus-eating scene, which still tests people’s gag reflexes. And a sledgehammer twist-ending knocks new audiences for six. But it’s Park’s brilliantly controlled tension-building and simmering acknowledgment of how grudges corrupt and corrode that sustains repeat views and Oldboy’s status as modern Korean cinema’s harbinger (of doom).

Those wishing for a more measured introduction might consider JSA: Joint Security Area, a Rashomon-like tale with multiple, contradictory takes on what went wrong in a fatal shootout in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. Park’s snappy pacing and slick framing are present and correct, though the fast and furious violence, by Korean cinema standards, is relatively muted.

The tone is more elegiac, too, the film more focused on addressing, in one character’s words, “half a century of division… Overcoming our history of agony and disgrace.” It’s the equivalent of an exemplary Hollywood character-driven thriller that deals with Big Themes (JSA Confidential?). And central on-screen trio Lee Byung-hun, Lee Yeong-ae and, especially, the great Song Kang-ho all went on to even finer Korean screen work, with and without Park.

What to watch next

The Handmaiden (2016)

Amid all the aggressive male jockeying for position in his films, Park regularly focuses on enigmatic but quietly powerful, occasionally even sinister, women who surreptitiously spin narratives to their own ends. No film better exemplifies this than his latest, The Handmaiden (2016), an ingenious transplanting of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed Victorian-set novel Fingersmith to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea.

A young petty thief is hired by a smooth male criminal to inveigle herself as maid to a wealthy courtesan, and yet the triple-crossing plot is arguably the least head-spinning element of Park’s hypnotic, erotic thriller. Lavishly gorgeous sets and costumes, and scenes of kinky S&M, backed by Cho Young-wuk’s dreamy score create an ambience of steel-edged, silken menace. And yet within these oppressive male power structures, the two female protagonists (exquisite, go-for-broke leads Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee) somehow turn the tables, just as Park shapes potentially exploitative, explicit lesbian love scenes into a celebration of female emancipation and one of his very best films.

Stoker (2013)

More perverse sexuality and a twisted distaff coming-of-age govern Park’s US debut, Stoker (2013). It’s set largely within a timeless, almost Gothic fairytale Southern mansion, where Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode entrap themselves in a fetid, florid family waltz of madness and murder, which takes its Hitchcock influence – notably Shadow of a Doubt’s sinister, near-symbiotic uncle/niece relationship – into ever more macabre territory.

The other two entries in Park’s ‘revenge trilogy’, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005) perhaps forego Oldboy’s kinetic trajectory, but both have similarly virtuoso visuals, scenes of scarcely watchable suffering and slowburn ruminations on the psychological cost of retribution. Of the two, Lady Vengeance is perhaps more singular, largely due to Lee Yeong-ae’s “kindly Miss Geum-ja” (the original Korean film title). Parks unfolds her carefully planned revenge on the psycho (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) who framed her for a child’s murder and kidnapped her own daughter like a sociopathic Amélie, before a third-act shift to a more haunting, plaintive conclusion.

Where not to start

Following up his hardcore vengeance films with breezy, blasé mental health/sci-fi comedy I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006) was a bold though not entirely successful switch. Set in an institution, the romance between a woman who believes she’s, well, see the title and a schizophrenic kleptomaniac (pop star Rain) misses more targets than it hits, despite Park’s trademark eye-catching imagery and a sly dig at his own back catalogue (of the ‘Seven Deadly Cyborg Sins’, the worst is “sympathy”!).

I'm a Cyborg but That’s OK (2006) poster

Despite another Cannes prize, tortured vampire tale Thirst (2009), concerning a Catholic priest’s (Song Kang-ho again) enforced blood-sucking and forbidden love affair, is the first time that Park’s dark perspective infects the tone and pace of the film itself, which, despite its bold, bleak premise, is – whisper it – a little turgid. Far fleeter of foot, though disappointingly gimmicky, is Park’s entry into the Asian horror triptych Three Extremes (2009). ‘Cut’ puts a successful young film director (Lee Byung-hun) hostage to a deranged extra from his previous films, but it’s a baroque mousetrap with no real emotional snap.

Those inured to Park’s blend of relentless flamboyance and cool flaunting of humanity’s worst impulses might argue that ‘Cut’ is representative of his work as a whole: baroque style over morally broken or bankrupt substance. There’s always the risk that a filmmaker who traffics in taboo-breaking material while constantly pushing his aesthetics (and Park and regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s collaborations are up there with Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle or Zhang Yimou/Zhao Xiaoding’s dazzling visual tapestries) will trip up on this tightrope. But his best films, more nuanced and varied than one might think, are intoxicating brews, seeking visual perfection and moral provocation, spiked with a dash of mocking, dark wit.

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