For those of you who are not familiar with South Korean cinema, it is something you should really consider looking into. Along with the likes of Kim Jee-woon and Kang Woo-suk, South Korean cinema exploded worldwide in the early 2000s, with films such as A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), A Bittersweet Life (2005) and Public Enemy (2002). But director Park Chan-wook was at the forefront of this movement in my opinion. With his films reaching the peak of excellence in terms of framing, violent subject matter, philosophical undertones, and a brilliant dose of black humour, he is without a doubt one of my favourite directors ever. Seeing as his new film The Handmaiden (2016) is finally being released here this week, I thought I would get everyone’s underwear in a twist, and count off the films of Park Chan-wook. I will be excluding Park’s first two feature films The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream (1992) and Trio (1997), as I have unfortunately never had the privilege to view them myself, as they are mostly unavailable on DVD over here. So let’s go.
7. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
After being a fan of Park’s films for over ten years, I only got the chance to catch this film for the first time last year. And although I knew this film would be very different in tone to his other features, I have to say I was really let down by it (hence its position in today’s list). The film itself is an unusual blend for a romantic comedy, taking place in a mental institution, it follows a girl who believes herself to be a cyborg, and an institutionalized young man who pines for her. One critic noted it as being “part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), part Amelie (2001)”, which makes sense as the film itself I found to be very jarring upon first viewing. Upon repeated viewings I have found things to like about it, but it will have to remain my least favourite of the director’s work.
6. Stoker (2013)
Boy people are going to be mad at me for putting this ahead of the previous entry. But I’m not sorry. Making his English-language debut with some great talent including Nicole Kidman (debatable), Mia Wasikowska (undebatable) and Matthew Goode (just downright creepy). The story follows a widowed mother and her daughter (Kidman and Wasikowska) who are introduced to the deceased’s brother (Goode) who has been off travelling the world. However, the young girl does not trust him, especially when some disturbances in her local town draws up suspicion, and a very dark relationship soon follows. The film itself is wracked with Freudian symbolism and the performance of Goode is just really befitting for the almost cracked atmosphere. What I mean is his charm and creepiness is just enough to keep you either intrigued, or on edge, because we really don’t know what he is doing or what his intentions are. Although people gave out about the performances in this film, I would say the opposite and say they were spot on with the tone of the film itself.
5. Joint Security Area (2000)
At the time of the film’s release, JSA was the highest-grossing film in Korean film history at the time. Being Park’s first major theatrical release, the subject matter of the film held some significant importance. The plot follows the investigation into a shooting which took place in the DMZ, the border that separates North and South Korea. As a young officer is sent in to investigate, it becomes clear that this shooting has a very interesting backstory. The film itself has much deeper meanings to it than the mystery thriller it is known for. Most significantly the unlikely relationships that develop between certain parties (not trying to give away too much). But it also shows how people from the North and South of Korea are generally no different from each other. It is known that Kim Jong-il received the DVD as a gift in a summit meeting back in 2007. Whether he payed any attention to it remains unknown.
4. Thirst (2009)
Although Park had delved into very dark areas with many of his films, he had never really made any type of horror film up to this point. Originally entitled ‘The Bat’, Thirst follows a devout Catholic priest who volunteers for a medical experiment which could result in a vaccine for a virus. However, as a result of the experiments, he notices a drastic change in his body that many believe makes him a religious figure. But when an old friend comes back into his life, with a very pretty wife who has eyes for the priest, things become very ugly. It is quite a bizarre love triangle that happens in this film. Backed by a really compelling story, some bloody visuals (some VERY bloody visuals), and a few twists and turns, it is unlike a lot of vampire films that many people are used to. Which makes it a unique viewing experience in and of itself.
3. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
We now move onto what most people would associate Park Chan-wook with… The Vengeance Trilogy. I have a lot of intense debates about the first two entries here but I will put my cards down and put this entry here. A deaf man who works in a factory struggles to come up with the money to help pay for his sisters kidney transplant. After he is duped by an underground gang into selling one of his own kidneys, he focuses his attention on kidnapping, which does not go as well as he would have planned. The first thing I will say about this trilogy is that these are some very dark movies. The subject matter is incredibly bleak at times, but sometimes is interwoven with carefully placed black humour. This entry has many of these aspects. Setting off a chain of never-ending revenge the story can sometimes feel a little convoluted but it still really pays off in the end and is a brilliant first entry for the trilogy.
2. Lady Vengeance (2005)
The third entry in the Vengeance trilogy follows a woman who had spent 13 years in prison for the murder of a 5-year-old boy. She has made it her mission to get out on good behaviour and has succeeded, only to enact her most brutal revenge. When she turns her attention on a pre-school teacher, we get a better understanding for why she is on this journey. Not just for herself, but for everyone else who has been hurt by his sadistic intentions. This was a great closer to the trilogy. Racking up on the violence as Park is well known for, this film goes into some very deep territories involving some of the most disturbing found-footage content I have seen in any film (even within the found-footage genre itself). For some people who have a strong will power, this film is surely to test it. Which just makes the film itself all the more intriguing and suspenseful for someone who wants a purely tough thriller.
1. Oldboy (2003)
Writing about my favourite director (or at least in the top 3) has been no easy task today. Trying to rank these films as brilliant as they all are is quite tough. But not one of them has ever managed to surpass my love for one of my favourite films of all time. A man is awoken in a hotel room with no windows and is fed through a trap-door. He remains in the room for fifteen years, and is suddenly released. He soon receives phone calls from his captor taunting him and a young woman who has befriended him. He eventually gives him an ultimatum, he has five days to figure out why he was imprisoned, if he finds out, the captor will kill himself, if he does not, he will kill his new friend. I saw this film for the first time when I was a teenager, recommended to me by my brother, and I am eternally grateful for it. Every other film in Park Chan-wook’s arsenal, to me, tries very hard to overcome what he has succeeded here, some even extremely close. But the fact of the matter is, everything that makes Park’s films so good, is all summed up in this one film. The stunning cinematography (the hallway scene alone), the brutal violence, the philosophical undertones, and the blackest of humour all culminate in this ultimate tale of revenge. I will continue to follow Park’s work for many years to come, but I highly doubt any of his future endeavours will ever succeed over Oldboy. Not for the want of trying.