Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly my favourite Asian director, on par with another legend Akira Kurosawa. Chan-wook has always delved into human philosophies and the dark side of our soul in the most brutal of ways.
Park Chan-wook was born in Seoul and studied philosophy at Sogang University, where he aspired to be an art critic. However, after he watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, he decided to become a director. Most popular for his “Vengeance trilogy”, especially his worldwide phenomenon “Oldboy”, he was recently in the news for the critically acclaimed drama ” The Handmaiden”.
The visual style of the depicted gruesome violence as well as the long and sensitive sequences make his films stand out from the crowd. Here are 7 of his directed films, ranked in the ascending order.
(P.S. – I love all his films and thus, this list was a tough ask!)
7. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Park Chan-wook’s take on the romantic film did not excite me enough, mainly because I am myself not a rom-com lover. Still, this turned out to be a fun entertainer.
Cha Young-goon is hospitalized in a mental institute, as she believes she is a cyborg. In that fashion, she thinks that she can ‘feed’ herself by licking batteries, and that actual food will ruin her circuits. As her belief starts having a large impact on her health, Il-soon, another inmate who is in love with her, tries to find ways to persuade her to eat.
Park avoids every stereotype of the genre by having his characters act like caricatures, and infusing the right humour in the right dose.
6. J.S.A: Joint Security Area (2000)
“J.S.A.” is one of the films that inaugurated the new era in Korean cinema. In style, it was one of the first in its genre; in its cast, it established the careers of Park Chan-wook, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun; and in technique, it was the first in the country shot with a Super 35 camera, which is commonly used in Hollywood blockbusters.
The script is based on the novel “DMZ” by Park Sang-yeon and takes place in the demilitarized zone, on the border between the two Korean nations.
Two North Korean soldiers are killed in a guardhouse in the DMZ and moments later, a South Korean sergeant named Lee Soo-hyeok attempts to cross the bridge in the middle of the zone, back to his country. The North Koreans open fire against him, but his compatriots manage to save him. However, the cease-fire is now hanging by a thread. Two days later, Major Sophie E. Jean of the Swiss Army arrives at the area to investigate the case for NNSC. The two sides have opposite theories about the facts, each one supported by Lee Soo-hyeok and Sergeant Oh Kyung-pil. The case becomes even more complicated, since Major Jean is the daughter of an expatriated Korean.
The flashbacks are used with aplomb to slowly reveal exactly what happened, while keeping the tension throughout the film. Song Kang-ho as Oh Kyung-pil and Lee Byung-hun as Lee Soo-hyeok are both magnificent, to the point where the spectator cannot pick a side among them. The two of them, along with the direction and the cinematography, are the film’s biggest assets.
5. Stoker (2013)
Park’s transition to Hollywood made a film which split movie enthusiasts.
The story begins on the 18th birthday of India, a laconic and detached girl who loses her father in a car accident on the same day. At the funeral, Charles, a mysterious uncle whose existence India ignored, makes an appearance. Evelyn, India’s mother, seems enchanted by Uncle Charlie, although his interest seems to lie with India. His constant efforts to approach her are met with defensiveness, until India starts suspecting that her uncle harbors a number of dark secrets. This realization, however, actually draws her toward him instead of pushing her away, and in the process, reveals a self even she was not aware of.
The central theme in “Stoker” is India’s coming-of-age in terms of sexuality, and the way Charlie influences the latter. However, and in a tactic much reminiscent of Nabokov’s “Lolita”, Charlie uses the mother in order to get closer to the daughter. His efforts through cunning manipulation to change the aversion India initially feels for him, from jealousy to subsequent desire, is one of the main axes of the film.
Both of these axes, India’s sexual awakening, and Charlie’s efforts at manipulation are also presented through a number of symbolisms. Whether it be the water dripping between India’s feet when she comes into the house soaking wet from the rain or the repeated theme of a spider crawling between her thighs. A good watch especially for those who read Chan-wook’s style.
4. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The first part of the “Vengeance Trilogy” revolves around Ryu, a deaf-mute who works in a factory while he also has to take care of his sick sister, who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. His situation takes a turn for the even worse when the doctors inform him that he is not a suitable donor and at the same time, he is fired from his job. Utterly desperate, he decides to search in the black market for a kidney, and although he manages to find some people who can help him, they prove to be con men who eventually take all of his compensation and one of his own kidneys, and leave him injured and naked in an unknown building. Seeing Ryu in this situation, his anarchist girlfriend, Yeong-mi, suggests kidnapping the daughter of his boss, Dong-jin, who has laid off many workers from his factory.
The emotions portrayed in the movie what makes this a superb watch. Park presented the extremes an individual can reach when they find themselves in desperate situations. Revenge, the central theme of the film and of all his films in the “Vengeance trilogy”, results from the aforementioned situations and is presented in four axes.
3. The Handmaiden (2016)
The script is based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters and takes place in 1930’s Korea, with the country under Japanese rule. Con man “Count” Fujiwara has managed to insert himself into the very secluded circle of Kouzuki, an eccentric hedonist who has become the man in charge of a very large estate, and plans to marry his niece, Lady Hideko, the actual heiress of the family’s vast fortune. Fujiwara devices an intricate plan to “steal” Lady Hideko for himself, and asks the help of a ragtag girl, Sook-hee, a petty criminal who lives with her aunt’s family, all of whom are of the same ‘profession’. The plan is for the girl to become Lady Hideko’s handmaiden, and to help Fujiwara seduce her. However, things do not go as planned, since an attraction is formed between the two girls, and the many plot twists result in a much-unexpected story.
“The Handmaiden” proves that Park Chan-wook is one of the top filmmakers of this era, and that the knowledge he acquired from his time in Hollywood can be wonderfully implemented in Asian aesthetics.
However, his usual traits are once more present. The characters act like caricatures, as exemplified by Sook-hee and particularly Kouzuki in perverse style. His dark and grotesque humor is also featured, which is exemplified in a torture scene where the victim seems to even indulge in his maiming. The abnormal eroticism is also exemplified in the concept of the underground erotic literature club. It was a surprise that this masterpiece was actually snubbed by the Academy Awards committee from the Oscars contention.
2. Lady Vengeance (2005)
The third part of the “Vengeance Trilogy” presents the theme of revenge from a female point of view and in a way which made this movie such a gem.
The script revolves around Geum-ja, a woman found guilty for the kidnapping and murder of a child, who has waited patiently in prison for 13 years in order to avenge the man responsible for most of the evils in her life. While there, she managed to present an utterly benevolent persona, whose sole purpose was to make the friends needed for the intricate plan she has conceived. After her release, she exploits those acquaintances, but as she is about to fulfill her purpose, she realizes that the truth is much worse than she imagined.
The fact that ordinary people can turn into sadistic murderers presents Park’s message regarding revenge: sometimes, vengeance through violence is the only way. In order to justify this philosophy, he paints the evil character with the most gruesome colors, to a point that any action against him is deemed worthy, and even fair.
Special mention of Lee Young-ae who is spectacular in the titular character, with the overwhelming majority of the film being based upon her. Her transformation from a victim, to a “saint,” to a vigilante, and finally to an ordinary (of sorts) woman is probably the film’s greatest asset. Choi Min-sik is, once more, quite persuasive as the embodiment of pure evil, although his part is quite small.
1. Oldboy (2003)
The second installment of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” is the film that turned the global interest toward Korean cinema.
The film focuses on Dae-su, a businessman who is arrested for drunkenness, missing his daughter’s fourth birthday. The same night, and for no apparent reason, he is abducted and forced to live in the same room for 15 years. When he is unexpectedly released, he is set on exacting revenge, although the sole evidence in his possession is the fact that he must accomplish this revenge in five days. A girl he meets at a sushi restaurant, where she works as a chef, decides to help him, once more with no apparent reason.
Although “Oldboy” has revenge as its central theme, Park directs a movie with the actual goal of presenting another dimension, one that leads to repentance. The turn of events towards the end surely left even the strongest of hearted people shocked!
Choi Min-sik is sublime as Dae-su, giving a magnificent performance and artfully presenting a plethora of sentiments that vary from ecstasy to paranoia, while retaining a style that makes him seem, at most times, as a caricature. Yoo Ji-tae is also great as the impersonation of evil and Kang Hye-du is quite functional as the girl who falls in love with Dae-su. Kim Byeong-ok as Mr. Han is a nice addition to the film, in cult fashion.
(P.S. – I did not like his much acclaimed Thirst as much as his other films in the list)
Source : tasteofcinema.com