With its violent, visceral and vibrant cinema, Korea particularly has become the Kafkaesque regional epi-centre of horror cinema. Park is at the at the vanguard of what The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw so succinctly labelled, 'the new sicko frontier of exotic horror" that seems to have exploded as a cult pop phenomenon sweeping the region and the globe and re-defining film aesthetics.
Internationally renowned for his Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), Park couldn’t have timed better his implosion onto the film festival circuit with the very popular Joint Security Area at Berlin and Oldboy, winner of the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, just the year when the high priest of horror, Quentin Tarantino was head of the Jury.
The three consecutive films have revenge as their central theme, focusing on its futility and havoc. His stylistic signature consists of immaculate framing and brutal subject matter.
Violence, revenge, psychosexual mayhem, retribution, and cover-ups succinctly pervade Park’s movies. The effect, particularly for the uninitiated, can be relentless and disturbing.
Park originally wanted to be an art critic so elected to study philosophy at the Catholic Sogang University, but the range of subjects was too limited so instead he immersed himself in photography. When he saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo his aspirations gelled: he felt immediately compelled to become a movie director.
Like a lot of European wannabe film-makers, Park started as a movie critic, then moved to assistant director before making his feature debut with The Moon is the Sun’s Dream (1992). His follow up, Trio (1997) was not well received. But it was third time lucky for Park when his third feature, Joint Security Area (2000), won raves at the Berlin Film Festival and around the international film festival circuit.
Park was hailed as the latest Korean wunderkind with Joint Security Area, a mystery political thriller involving murder, betrayal and forbidden friendship, set in a demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. It scored the double whammy: breaking domestic box office records and winning critical acclaim as well.
Park followed up Joint Security Area with a revenge-themed trilogy. "With the development of civilisation and rise in educational levels people have had to hide their rage deep within them," he explained at Cannes, 'but this does not mean these emotions go away."
"In fact, modern society is burdening people with more sense of rage but there are fewer outlets through which they can release it, so I guess art can be useful."
The trilogy make Joint Security Arealook like a Sunday school picnic as Park escalates the violence in the first instalment. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), trails a deaf mute who kidnaps his ex-boss’s daughter to secure money for a kidney transplant his ailing sister badly needs – with dire consequences. Oldboy (2004), serves up a potent mix of noir thriller, visceral mayhem and moral parable with an intriguing premise at its core: a man is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, without explanation, then released to unravel the whodunnit. And there are the usual components: fight scenes, black humour, self-mutilation, torture and sex.
In Lady Vengeance, (2005) a young woman named Geum-ja, who had been incarcerated for murder, has been allegedly been rehabilitated, comes out of prison bent on a revenge quest.
In fact, so popular is Korean cinema right now, and particularly Chan-wook Park, that some of Hollywood’s top 'heavyweights’ are involved in discussions on remakes of his films. Steven Spielberg and Will Smith are talking Oldboy. Meanwhile, Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, has allegedly has been asked to direct Lady Vengeance.
– Mary Colbert