Park Chan-wook is one of those filmmakers who not only has a signature style – stylish pans, indelible framing, and unsettling flourishes – but also a readily identifiable worldview. Each of the 53-year-old South Korean writer/director’s movies are akin to journeys into peculiar worlds where the rules of everyday life have run of the rails but no-one has noticed, let alone made amends. If that makes Park sound like an aloof cinematic deity, moving his protagonists around pieces on a board, his movies declare his palpable connection to his character’s needs, even when that leads to violent revenge or heartrending betrayal.
Park was born and raised in Seoul, studying philosophy and trying his hand at art and film criticism before, as the story goes, a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of obsession, Vertigo, set him on the path to behind the camera. He found commercial success at home and renown abroad with his third feature, the 2000 mystery Joint Security Area, which followed the twisty investigation into a deadly shooting on the armed border between the two Korean states. White it’s not as morally complex as his subsequent works, the movie put Park at the forefront of a Korean New Wave, alongside Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) and Kim Ki-duk (3-Iron) amongst others.
Operating through a translator, Park worked in English and with western actors on 2013’s Stoker, a hothouse of barely repressed desires that starred Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode. With its rich design but reductive plotting, it was perhaps the closest Park has come to emulating Hitchcock. Returning to his homeland, Park’s latest feature, the just released The Handmaiden, is a triumph. Set in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation, it details deceit from three intertwined viewpoint with a scabrous outlook and a terrifically vital focus on the joyous unity between two women.
Each Park Chan-wook feature is worthy in its own right, and SBS on Demand has a wonderful double bill from the middle of his career to whet your appetite.
Quentin Tarantino wasn’t wrong: serving as the President of the jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival he pushed hard for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy to win the august event’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. An avowed fan of Park, Tarantino didn’t quite get his way as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or, while Park received the considerable consolation of the Grand Prize. Yet Oldboy has become a defining work for the filmmaker, and a worthy starting point. A thriller whose answers don’t just advance the narrative, but also deepen the vexing demands on your sympathy, the film was the second instalment in Park’s Vengeance trilogy, bookended by 2002’s Mr. Vengeance and 2005’s Lady Vengeance.
Abducted without explanation after a drunken night out, the nondescript Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is locked away without human contact for 15 years. Kept alive, he sees on television that he’s been framed for his wife’s murder, and when he’s eventually released he’s like a wild otherworldly animal. “I want to eat something alive,” Oh tells a sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), and an octopus does the trick. Taunted but kept focused by the attentions of his unknown captor, Oh is so consumed by his need for revenge, which may be the result of madness or the only thing keeping it at bay. He tortures, and is tortured, as part of his investigation, and in a famous fight scene shot in a single take alongside a corridor, his determination and a hammer help him batter his way past two dozen thugs.
At one point, Oh’s adversary calls him “Mr. Monster”, and like Frankenstein he can be seen as a creature built from human parts. The need for retribution is so strong in Oldboy that it obscures the humanity of the characters until it comes rushing to the surface. There’s a degree of manipulation in this untethered world, but also a caustic sense of humour – later in the film, Oh encounters the hood he previously tangled with, and they regard him with wary trepidation as they nurse bruises and bandages. Most thrillers become intricate little contraptions as they unfold, negating their emotion, but Oldboy is the opposite. Each revelation adds to the movie’s anguished humanity.
Park Chan-wook took on a different genre with his 2009 feature, bending the horror film to his distinctive talents so that the metaphorical hunger for blood that had animated so many of his characters became a literal need. In a twist typical of Park, his vampire is not a figure of stylish immortality but rather an inept newcomer whose misguided actions only exacerbate his muddied position. Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest not entirely convinced he can help others spiritually, but when he volunteers to serve in Africa he agrees to be infected with a fatal virus so his body can host a potential cure being trialled.
Park makes even the vomiting of blood a moment of bleak, fatalistic humour – note the great prop choice – but when Sang-hyeon receives a blood transfusion he dies but does not expire. Soon he’s a nocturnal presence in the hospital where he’s purportedly a patient, helping himself to more blood to satisfy a deep-seated hunger. Park acknowledges vampire myths such as the danger of sunshine, but there’s an everyday horror and black humour to how Sang-hyeon’s situation plays out. Catholic teachings such as the sacrament take on a whole new perspective as Sang-hyeon tries to deal with his predicament and a stubborn strain of worshippers who believe his survival is a miracle. Sang soon knows better.
Back in Korea, he resides with a family he has known since childhood and meets, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), the wife of his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). Sang-hyeon and Tae-ju are attracted to each other, attracted by an unspeakable hunger each has, and she’s the equivalent of the married femme fatale in a Hollywood film noir who manipulates a sap into doing what she wants. Park’s camera elegantly pans around the family home Sang has entered, finding a tragically desperate love story. Thirst, like so many of Park Chan-wook’s features, it never quite what it led you to believe it was.