Director Spotlight: Park Chan-wook
With his new film Decision to Leave debuting imminently at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, I thought I’d take the time to explore legendary director Park Chan-wook's career. Although boasting a diverse filmography that takes on complex themes through a variety of genres, there are some common elements present in every work of the creative auteur. In order to explore those characteristics, I rewatched all of Chan-wook's works and will share my five favorite films from him, ranked.
5. Joint Security Area (2000)
Joint Security Area was the director's first major success and it is also the ideal film to start exploring Chan-wook's career, as singular features of his identity behind the camera are already on display.
The film may be labeled by some as a war movie, but that's not really what it is. There is a military conflict and the film considers the difficult relationship between the two Koreas, but the film is not necessarily about that conflict. There are murders and a mystery to solve, but the film is also not really about that. The structure chosen by Chan-wook is ambitious and the excellent montage is what makes it work, even after a hesitant first act.
Everything gains a new dimension from the moment that the two principal men from either side meet for the first time. From that moment, it becomes clear that it is a film essentially about friendship, innocence, dreams, bonds... in short: people.
The second act contains some simple but impactful moments, such as soldiers on either side of the conflict playing joyous, childish games. It's a moment that forces us to reflect on the pleasures of life and our privileges in peace zones. Extreme close-ups, pan shots, slow-motion... a little bit of everything is used by the director to explore the dimension of the moment.
As it will become known throughout his career, Chan-wook takes an interest in the taboo and the unknown. Joint Security Area can be simultaneously warm and cold. It can be claustrophobic even while wrapping the audience in its embrace. It can convey hope, but also cynicism. All these clashes are very well managed by the script and the director, with the precious help of a stellar cast that rises to the occasion.
4. Thirst (2009)
Park Chan-wook and a vampire story. A horror movie, by most standards. However, we know that the director does not mesh with the conventional and, of course, this is not a normal horror story. Thirst tells the story of a priest who questions his own faith while looking for something that can bring his fire back. A *certain experience* goes wrong and, after dying, the priest is injected with a blood sample that transforms him into a vampire. All of this would already give us a lot to explore, but Chan-wook goes further, adding in an adulterous relationship that puts the priest in some spicy scenes – spicy being a modest word for them – with his childhood best friend's wife. How the hell could this story receive a happy ending?
Quite provocative, Thirst involves a panoply of themes that, in addition to religion, revenge and deadly sins, also incorporates elements of love, family, self-acceptance and responsibility. Is there any justification for hurting people? Is it moral to grant a disabled man vampirism just so he can experience life in an able-bodied way? Those kinds of ethical questions frequently pop up on the menu.
Kang-ho Song is always fantastic and no one could have played his vampire priest better, but it is his young love interest, lived by Kim Ok-bin, that elevates the mystery and irreverence of the work and makes it impossible to predict what comes next. Visually stunning, with an excellent soundtrack and imaginative scenes, Thirst is more of a Gothic novel than a horror movie. Chan-wook took a big risk and passed the test with distinction: it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2009.
3. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is actually the third film in Chan-wook’s so-called "revenge trilogy," but don't worry: all the movies work very well independently. It is also the only film in the trilogy where the revenge is perpetuated by a woman, which gives it that extra twinge of originality. But why does this woman feel the need for vengeance? Quite simple: she spent 13 years in jail after confessing to a heinous crime. The catch? She didn't commit that crime and was blackmailed into taking the blame in order to save her daughter.
Is Lady the most accessible film in this trilogy? I'd say so, but that doesn't mean Chan-wook has forgotten his artistic vein. Yes, it is true that the indie feeling that characterizes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not so present. Yes, it is also true that the mystery of his earlier masterpiece Oldboy is not the point of propulsion in the film. However, the lack of those two qualities is offset by its striking style and occasional black comedy elements. Chan-wook seeks to surprise, and that he does, successfully balancing the macabre with a vital sense of humor. However, Lady Vengeance is not a comedy film. Understanding why Geum-ja Lee (Lee Yeong-ae) was forced to make her past decisions is devastating.
Later in the film, the audience is gifted with the consummation of Geum-ja's retaliation plan against those who wronged her in one of the most brutal scenes that I've ever seen. It totally changes the mood of the film from an "almost feel-good revenge" to something much more sadistic. The final scene between mother and daughter is about as powerful as you can get in cinema. Despite it all, Lady is the film of the trilogy that leaves us more at peace with its conclusion. Thoroughly constructed and cleverly edited, all of Chan-wook's pieces fall perfectly into place.
2. The Handmaiden (2016)
It's amazing to watch a movie where every character fits, the staging is devoid of accident and the plot brims with pre-planned intricacy. The Handmaiden is one of those cases. The script and the chosen structure are pure class. The film follows a rich Japanese heiress – Lady Hideko – who is seduced by a con man. In order to consummate his plan, he hires a pickpocket to become her maid and convince the lady that the con man is the love of her life. That simple? Obviously not!
Three different perspectives interconnect in a way that even rings of all-time classics like Rashomon. Chan-wook uses those three parts to deliver the final product in a totally satisfactory way. It’s one of those pieces of art that seems rather straightforward at face value but gradually peels back the layers as it unfolds, masterfully developing its characters.
As a thriller, The Handmaiden is quite effective in driving the plot by creating different mysteries in different time horizons and stunning the audience with its clever plot twists. As a love story, it doesn’t instruct which love story to root for, letting the intensity of feeling grow. All dynamics are so well-presented that the extreme sex scenes never seem gratuitous, but in fact, rather necessary to demonstrate how passionate the relationships are. No surprise: the theme of revenge is once again present in the film, and Chan-wook also takes the opportunity to criticize some aspects of the local culture.
Technically speaking, The Handmaiden is flawless. The harmonious sound composition fits like a glove within the beautifully composed scenes and scenarios where its brilliant cinematography, wardrobe and production design take center stage. However, it’s the direction that will make many lose their heads, with Chan-wook choosing, several times, unusual angles and techniques, supporting himself in an incredible work of editing. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are pitch-perfect in their respective roles and are the true stars of the markedly feminist story.
1. Oldboy (2003)
In Oldboy, a man is made prisoner in a room for 15 years without knowing why and vows revenge. Its story of retribution has many elements common to the filmography of the renowned auteur. Indeed, the mystery element is ever-present, building suspense to the explanation for the simple man's torture.
It was with Oldboy that Park Chan-wook first gained the attention of an international audience. Highly praised by Quentin Tarantino, the film even won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. However, probably more important than that, it swiftly managed to reach film-lovers in underground circuits, awakening a whole new generation to the beauties of Asian and South Korean cinema in particular.
This is another of the director's films where there is a lot going on, thus pleasing different types of audience members: fans of action films have a lot to enjoy, with spectacular fight scenes that greatly influenced cinema for many years. Fans of dramatic thrillers are gifted with elevated moments of suspense and mystery with a strong emotional undercurrent in all key moments. Those who like comedy should find Chan-wook’s unique sense of humor popping up at unexpected times. Regardless, Oldboy is a film that works best for open-minded people who enjoy genre-bending and don’t mind being shocked by malicious twists.
Chan-wook clearly enjoys playing with the fact that good people can commit bad deeds. In Oldboy in particular, he tackles many of those gray lines, humanizing the characters and allowing us to identify with them, even if many of their actions are disgusting or reprehensible. Although I love the entire filmography of the South Korean director, I confess that I still feel that Oldboy is the most stirring. Maybe it's not as polished as a film as The Handmaiden would come to be, but there's a greater rawness to it that remains unmatched.
Choi Min-sik was already a high-status actor in his country at the time of the film’s release, but he will likely always be associated with the success of this film. His monstrous interpretation remarkably culminates in the film's agonizing final moments. With one of the best plot twists in history, Oldboy will leave a mark on whoever watches it. It is a film that deserves to be seen and studied for many decades.