A Buyer’s Guide To… Park Chan-Wook
When Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, it heralded the arrival of South Korea as one of Asian cinema’s heavyweights. Previously overshadowed by Hong Kong, Japan and China, Oldboy proved that the peninsula was quietly making some of the most thought-provoking, exciting and challenging films on the international stage – and it would kindle a love affair with the nation’s cinema that would go from strength to strength through the rest of the decade. The man behind Oldboy was Park Chan-wook, a sharp dressed, literate former film critic who has often admitted to being horrified by violence.
To casual viewers Park Chan-wook’s name is somewhat synonymous with Asian Extreme, but there is far more to his films than senseless brutality. Each is an immaculately crafted gem, often dealing with themes of redemption, loss and providence, juxtaposing beautiful cinematography with an unquenchable fascination with the darker elements of human nature. Here are some highlights (and lowlights).
The Vengeance Trilogy (2002 – 2005) is widely considered to be Park’s magnum opus, of which Oldboy (2003) is undoubtedly the centrepiece. Although each film in the trilogy is thematically similar, they are radically different in tone and style. Oldboy, for starters, is a furious, fast-paced thriller that often feels like a kung-fu flick directed by Franz Kafka – an adrenaline-pumped epic full of bold colours, black humour and some truly ruthless violence. The scene in which protagonist Oh Dae-su eats a live octopus has since become iconic (when asked if he felt sorry for actor Choi Min-sik during the filming of this scene, Park allegedly responded, “I felt more sorry for the octopus”), but it’s rather tame when compared to some of the other horrors Oldboy has lined up. Tongues are cut out, teeth are wrenched with a claw hammer, and the climactic twist is one of the most psychologically devastating in recent history.
By comparison, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002) is a much more restrained film, but it’s no less devastating for it. Whereas Oldboy was bold, brash and operatic, Mr Vengeance is grim, quiet and menacing – a more traditional tragedy in which a complicated web of revenge gradually destroys the lives of each of the leads. A ‘good kidnapping’, in which deaf-mute Ryu and his girlfriend hoped to ransom off the daughter of corporate executive Park Dong-jin to pay for his sister’s kidney operation, goes horribly wrong when the hostage dies, leading Park to pursue the couple for revenge. Meanwhile Ryu has bigger problems to deal with, as a similarly bungled attempt to obtain a kidney on the black market saw the dealers steal his, leading him to pursue them for some vengeance of his own. What follows is a sober, methodically-paced study on the self-destructive nature of revenge, with atmosphere replacing theatrics, and a character-driven plot taking the place of narrative twists.
…there’s still a great deal of uncertainty as to the extent to which revenge is ever justified.
Finally, Lady Vengeance (2005) is a lighter, more elegant and stylised take on the themes of revenge and redemption, in which ex-convict Lee Geum-ja enacts an elaborate plan to take revenge on the man who ruined her life with the help of her former prison friends. By far the most visually-pleasing of the trilogy, every shot in Lady Vengeance is as exquisite and delicate as a well-crafted confectionary, even when the events it depicts are anything but. Despite both this and a more comic tone than its predecessors, it’s still a decidedly dark tale, containing its fair share of violence and philosophical hand-wrenching. Choi Min-sik returns as villain Baek, turning the affability he brought to Oldboy’s Oh Dae-su into something truly unnerving – indeed, it’s pretty safe to say that Baek is the most unashamedly monstrous character in the trilogy. The brilliance of Lady Vengeance – and the trilogy as a whole – is that despite this, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty as to the extent to which revenge is ever justified, or if it ever brings closure to those who choose to take it.
Besides the Vengeance Trilogy, JSA: Joint Security Area (2000) is another must-see, a surprisingly touching tale of comradeship set in the No Man’s Land between the two Koreas. What begins as a fairly standard Tom Clancy-style political thriller, following a UN investigation into an alleged shooting on the border that threatens to escalate into a full-blown conflict, becomes a warm and very human tale of lives separated by ideologies. Much praised by Quentin Tarantino and phenomenally successful in its native country, JSA is one of the most original and tragic war films in recent years, a tale less about the politics of a divided part of the world and more about the people caught up in it. If possible, get hold of the re-dubbed version, as the original English language acting amongst the UN staff is notoriously awful. Slow to get going, but unforgettable when finished.
I’m A Cyborg (2006) is the film that fans can smugly point to when Park gets accused of relying too much on violence. It’s tentatively described as a romantic-comedy, but don’t let that fool you – I’m A Cyborg exists somewhere at the opposite end of the latest Meg Ryan on the rom-com spectrum, set among the inhabitants of a mental hospital and following the blossoming relationship between a girl convinced she’s a Cyborg and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for plastic rabbit masks. It plays out like a modern fairytale, complete with an endearing cast of extras and a good-natured sense of humour. There’s also an edge of violence elevating it above Disney-style sickliness, including an opening scene in which Young-goon, the ‘cyborg’, cuts open her wrists and inserts live wires into her arm, or later hallucinates that she’s butchering the orderlies around her with her machine-gun fingers. The quirkiness and addition of Korean pretty-boy Rain mark it out as a bit of an oddity in the Chan-wook canon, but it’s still a startlingly original and charming film worth renting.
Thirst is a gleeful subversion of all your prior imaginings of what a vampire movie should be.
Similarly, Park’s other genre experiment, Thirst (2009), is a gleeful subversion of all your prior imaginings of what a vampire movie should be. Sang-hyun is the staunchly moral Catholic priest, transformed into a vampire by a medical experiment gone wrong. Refusing to kill, he sates his bloodlust by drinking from hospital blood-packs, but an increasing attraction to bored housewife Tae-ju will see his staunch morality challenged by the lure of his newfound powers. Like many of Park’s works, Thirst deals with characters who find their good intentions manipulated by forces beyond their control, questioning the nature of fate and evil. The vampire elements bring a refreshing twist to familiar themes, and the movie’s original take on the concept makes it essential for fans of the genre.
Finally, several of Park’s shorts are worth watching, the best of which is Cut, part of the Three… Extremes (2004) collection. A showcase of three horror yarns from three of Asia’s most highly-regarded auteur directors (the other two being Japan’s Takashi Miike and Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan), Park’s entry features a director tormented by a spurned extra, who forces him to play a sequence of sadistic games if he wants to save his wife from having her fingers chopped off. It’s a nice distillation of Park’s familiar trademarks – baroque violence, surreal imagery and a twisted, Kafkaesque narrative, and although not the best of the three, it’s certainly a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
Also worth a watch is the scathing Judgement (1999), Park’s indictment of the greed that he believes lead to the Sampung Department Store collapse, in which over 500 people were killed. Set entirely in a morgue, it depicts the petty squabbles that take place over the ownership of the body of a young victim of the disaster. It’s far more personal and intimate than many of his films, but an unsettling experience nonetheless.
Park’s status as an auteur director means that few of his works are completely devoid of worthy features, but there are still a couple of mis-steps in the dustier corners of his canon. The Moon Is… The Sun’s Dream (1992), Park’s obscure directorial debut, is very hard to get hold of on these shores, and not particularly worth it either; it’s a fairly generic gangster flick. Not terrible, but very much the work of a man still finding his voice.
Similarly, Saminjo (1997) has never been released here and remains hopelessly obscure even in its native country. Hardcore Park fans – and those who are willing to both learn fluent Korean and make a trip round the flea markets of Seoul – are welcome to try scrounging up a copy, but there’s plenty of quality Park floating around on these shores to justify giving it a miss.
Finally, Park’s submission to the If You Were Me (2003) collection, entitled ‘Never Ending Peace and Love’, is a little heavy-handed in its dealings with a difficult subject matter, as well as being too Korea-centric for most viewers abroad. Exploring the treatment of a real-life Nepalese immigrant to Korea, it’s a nicely shot but fairly shallow indictment of the nation’s attitude to race and exploitation. Although the cause is certainly worthy – Korea’s status as a largely racially homogenous nation has lead to plenty of problems and a severe lack of education on the subject – it’s too simplistic to make much of an impact beyond the peninsula.
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