South Korean writer/director/producer Park Chan-wook is known mostly for the brutality in many of his films, but on closer inspection there’s a lot more to his artistry than gore. Although one of the most popular filmmakers in South Korea, he is less well-known in mainstream western cinema, unless you’re a particular cinephile or have done some research around those of his films that have been bastardised… sorry, remade by Hollywood, such as Oldboy. You may need a strong stomach to embark on a binge of some of his best work, something I feel like I’ve been preparing my whole life for, starting with his Vengeance trilogy. Come at me, Park…
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
First up, an intro to Park’s work. Thrown right in the deep end, the first in the trilogy is just as bizarre as some critics say, but also just as cinematically ‘out there’ as others conclude. A young deaf man, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), needs a new kidney for his sister, which he can’t afford. He and his girlfriend, Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) resort to kidnapping the child of his former employer with the intention of holding her to ransom. Straight away Park sets himself up as a director of worth, with some truly wonderful shots and interesting angles, and the narrative, although a little lost in translation at times, ebbs and flows with strong performances from the entire cast. The so-called ‘sympathy’ is certainly felt, but Park doesn’t make it as simple as one character deserving said sympathy. Do any of them deserve sympathy? If Park seems ambiguous in his intent and in his film’s message, it’s for a reason, and that is often the mark of an excellent director and filmmaker. And we’ve only just begun.
If I thought Mr Vengeance was bizarre, then Oldboy (second in the trilogy) is on another level, in some respects. After being kidnapped and held in a hotel-like room for fifteen years, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) is suddenly released and decides to track down his kidnapper. Along the way he meets a young woman who falls for him, and they embark on a relationship, Dae-Su all the while preparing to exact his revenge. With a few twists and turns and not everything being as it seems, Park ups his directorial game with more risky takes, such as a scene set in a long corridor with a camera tracking as Dae-Su fights a ton of guys, all done in one take. With more gore and ick-factor than its predecessor, Oldboy pushes Park, and his audiences, into new, exciting realms of cinema.
Lady Vengeance (2005)
Perhaps the best, and my personal favourite, of Park’s trilogy, in this “final” part a young woman is sent to prison for a crime that, although she was somewhat involved, she didn’t technically commit: the kidnapping and murder of a six-year-old boy. On her release thirteen years later, she, just like Dae-Su in Oldboy, sets herself a mission to find the real killer, again with the classic twists and turns we now come to expect from Park. With arguably the best direction, editing and cinematography of the three, Lady Vengeance’s pacing is a bit slower and easier to follow, particularly when you’re having to read subtitles (though it does segue into some English later in the film). The narrative builds and creates suspense in a different way to the previous two films, both of which would often dive straight into action and shock tactics. With a little less gore than Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, and more psychological terror and emotional disgust, Park proves himself to be one of the best directors not only to come out of the east, but to ever exist (fact).
The Handmaiden (2016)
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden features a blend of Korean, Japanese and English cultures, perhaps making it more accessible to a western audience as a result. A three-part story, it centres around a handmaiden, Sookee, the lady she waits on, Hideko, their evolving relationship and the deeds of the men who surround and deem to control them. It features a lot of Park’s familiar direction but is hugely toned down, perhaps to open it up to a wider audience than his more indie films may have attracted. In any other film this might be a bit disappointing, but in actuality it gives the wonderful production design a chance to be shown off. The score too is often eerie yet intricate, a sound that marries beautifully with the visuals. Perhaps not as gripping as some of his more shocking films, Park still manages to pull off something enticing, proving that his talent doesn’t just lie in thrillers and horrors.
In Park’s English language directorial debut we see an anti-social young girl, India (an intoxicating Mia Wasikowska), suffer the death of her father whilst dealing with her emotionally vacant mother (Nicole Kidman). When her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), appears out of the blue to stay, things start to go a little awry, particularly when secrets start pouring from the gothic woodwork. Complete with Park’s signature style, Stoker is a wonderful introduction for westerners unfamiliar with Park’s work, especially with the inclusion of a score by Clint Mansell (and a little help from the incomparable Philip Glass). Although the film feels very ‘Park’, the bizarre story certainly right for him and needing his understanding eye in order to translate the unusual screenplay and commit it to film, it doesn’t quite compare with his lesser-budgeted Korean pictures, in which he seems to feel freer to experiment. Understandable, when you’re working with/for/in Hollywood, but Park’s work appears more stifled when produced in the English language. Perhaps future work on the western side may prove otherwise, but for now, his Korean-based films are preferable.
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Moving completely away from the brutal and often gore-ridden stories, I’m A Cyborg shows another side to Park’s psychologically twisted tales, though this one has a softer side and a purpose to its insanity. In this particular story, Young-goon (Lim Soo-jung) is admitted to a mental hospital at her mother’s insistence, as Young-goon professes she’s a cyborg. Whilst institutionalised she meets another inmate, Il-soon (Rain), a kleptomaniac, and they soon start a strange sort of friendship. Il-soon helps Young-goon when she refuses to eat, and becomes somewhat of a carer for her. The first half of the film, the setup, is as odd as you’d expect of a Park film, but the second half softens into something sweet and funny. There are glimpses of signature Park direction (close-ups, actors framed off-centre, the physicality of the actors), but, like The Handmaiden, the film runs smoother than the harsh editing and lighting of previous Park films. It’s not as alluring in a morbidly curious way as Park’s darker films, but it does have its own unique charm.
In this horror/romance, Park delves into something deep and dark and psychological. In parts it almost feels a bit Fifty Shades, when it verges on sado-masochism. A rather odd story to say the least, we are initially introduced to Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a young priest, devout to the Christian church. On a whim he offers himself up to medical experimentation. Through this, he inadvertently becomes a vampire. Soon after he reconnects with a childhood friend, and on meeting said friend’s wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), he begins an illicit and lustful relationship with her. As things escalate between the two, events occur that test the moral boundaries for Sang-hyun. Touching on themes of faith, love, lust and death, Park continues to explore new territory in his filmmaking whilst retaining that off-kilter feel that he brings to the majority of his films. Although still within Park’s realm of great filmmaking, the story doesn’t feel quite up to par with the oddities that might normally be expected: vampires are hardly anything new, particularly when paired with sex, death and/or religion (Interview with the Vampire, The Hunger, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, to name a few).
Park Chan-wook’s work is known for being experimental, pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and storytelling, going beyond the limits of where most western directors would be willing to go. Perhaps that’s the influence of Hollywood: follow the checklist, and you’re in (as proven through Stoker, which, as mentioned, is the tamest of Park’s work). If that’s what it takes for Park to truly become mainstream in the English language, then I hope he only ever dips in and out rather than abandon his Korean roots, something I doubt he’d ever do. Although the west boasts many experimental directors of its own, the east seems to embrace unusual cinema more so. It probably says a lot about opposing cultures, but if Park can continue to test his audiences and keep pushing those boundaries, keeping things exciting and different, then maybe some of that influence can bleed into western cinema and encourage the next generation of filmmakers.
Other noted works:
JSA (Joint Security Area) (2000)
The Truth Beneath (2016)
Night Fishing (2011)
Three… Extremes (2004)