Filmmaker Retrospective: The Thrilling Cinema of Park Chan-Wook

Seoul born and raised, Park Chan-Wook studied philosophy at Sogang University, where he ran a film club, and then began his career as a film critic. His articles allowed him to gain a position as assistant director on a few films.

Park-Chan Wook began his career as a feature director in 1992 with his film The Moon is the Dream of the Sun, but the film was unsuccessful, and it was not until 2000 that he made his name as one of the loudest and most distinct voices in Asian cinema, with directors such as Wong Kar Wai and Takeshi Miike.

In 2000, when it opened, Joint Security Area was the highest-grossing Korean film ever released. It gained local and international notoriety and allowed Chan-Wook the financial freedom and creative confidence to create his Vengeance Trilogy.

In 2004 at Cannes, the second installment, Oldboy, won the Grand Prix and the devotion of millions. This film cemented his global reputation as a great filmmaker, and in this respect, it is certainly his magnum opus.

However, his whole career is equally worth studying: his films are consistently thrilling and captivating. His films contain a thick vein of black, absurdist humor, but his tone is seldom ridiculous or cheap (with the possible exception of I’m a Cyborg); there is a message in his absurdities.

The award- and acclaim-winning aspect of Chan-Wook’s work is his pacing, which is slow and contemplative, reflective and mysterious; his stripped down and simplistic visual style lends to an offbeat and symmetrical tone which is simultaneously moving, hilarious, and disturbing. His collaboration with cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon has reaped incredible returns for the director in his work since Oldboy.

His debut and his 1997 film Trio are painfully inaccessible. The former is available on Blu-Ray now, but without English subtitles. Chan-Wook himself has said that he does not want people to watch these films, so this probably explains why they have not been distributed.

The only way to access Trio is to go to Seoul and rent it, and you had damn well better understand Korean because there won’t be any subtitles to translate the dialogue for you. Bring a VHS player, too, because it hasn’t had any release on Blu-Ray or DVD to date. Unfortunately, his early films have fallen into total inaccessibility to anyone living outside of Korea, and we can only hope that some distributor will rectify this in the future.


1. Joint Security Area (2000)

joint security area

Joint Security Area begins as an investigative drama, but quickly distinguishes itself as unusual in its presentation and structure. The film follows the investigation of Major Sophie E. Jean of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee into the shooting of two North Korean soldiers in the DMZ at the border of the split nations.

At the onset our knowledge is limited to the depositions handed in by the survivors of the event: South Korean Sgt. Soo-Hyuk and North Korean Oh Kyeong-pil, whose accounts are playfully exposed to us onscreen to illustrate their insufficiency. The contradictions and mystery surrounding the event hold the viewer’s attention while the sterile inquiry continues.

As the evidence against the accounts given in the depositions mounts, Major Jean increases pressure on the two living suspects for information, and subsequently exposes the involvement of a fifth soldier in the event, Pvt. Nam. At this point in the narrative, the viewpoint shifts from that of the scenes described in the inaccurate depositions to an objective point of view that follows the real events, which actually happened, leading up to the shooting in detail.

Chan-Wook gives us a challenging and humorous take on relations between North and South Korea by bringing together the border guards in a camaraderie of brotherly friendship made tense by the warring and violent inclinations of their overhanging nations.

Through the contrast and gradual synchronization of the narrative of investigation, as well as the narrative of the four soldiers’ friendships, the film builds to the digressive beat of the antics and banter of the group of men in the light of the tensions and violence of the shooting.

Joint Security Area

The modulation and transition of the two alternating narratives – accompanied by a fickle and fast moving investigation – is at times harsh and difficult to follow, but obviously Chan-Wook’s story was engaging enough for South Korean audiences, as it became the largest grossing film in the country’s history at the time of its release, drawing a reported half a million people to the cinema in Seoul in its first week.

Viewership was probably heightened by the film’s politically neutral vein, but ultimately Joint Security Area launched Chan-Wook’s career with a very loud BANG on the world cinema circuit. Despite the slightly disjointed narrative and the at times amateurish editing, already we see distinct elements of the director’s budding signature style bleeding through both in its visuals and narrative.

Genres are transposed, transgressed, and transitioned – admittedly, in a manner less subtle than in his later work – through combinations of violence and comedy, in addition to experimentation with narrative structures, creating a distinctively offbeat visual style which is eminently difficult to pin down to only one genre.

However much the political implications may have absolved the director from all visual sin, the film was presented to North Korean leader Kim-Jong Il in 2007 by the president of South Korea, although what he might have thought we may never know.

The point is this film has been entered into the canon of classic films expounding the universal neutrality of camaraderie like Joyeux Noël, and in this respect Joint Security Area is surely indicative of the themes of the Vengeance Trilogy, which Chan-Wook would direct next.


2. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Chan-Wook’s first installment of his Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, is a black-comic thriller about a deaf-mute, blue-haired, art-school dropout called Ryu who is trying to help his sister get treatment for her failing kidneys.

In a slow and deliberately paced series of consecutive misfortunes, we see the hospital refuse to allow him to donate his kidney to his sister, because his blood-type does not match hers; then he is swindled out of his money – and one of his kidneys – by crooked black market organ dealers who have promised him a matching kidney in return; and finally, back at the hospital, he is told that they have found a donor for his sister, and all they need now is the money, of which he was robbed earlier, to pay for her operation.

It may be bleak, and at times, even difficult to watch, but the pervading tone of the film is irony, and there are points where the audience – sometimes, the characters too – can’t help but just laugh in the face of such an exercise in futility. The comedy derives from the sense that Ryu is a Job-like archetype, a magnet for suffering, whose every move brings him fresh misfortunes, while all the time, he remains only a hair’s breadth away from the things he needs to save his sister’s life.

The main body of the film takes place after Yeong-mi, Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend, plots to kidnap Yu-sun, the daughter of a wealthy business-owner who is friends with the man who fired Ryu from his last job. “The bad image they get is because kids keep getting killed,” Yeong-mi tells us, “There are good kidnappings and bad kidnappings.” It is safe to presume that this is a bad, albeit perhaps a moving, kidnapping.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Events spin out beyond the control of Ryu and Yeong-mi; the film becomes increasingly full of characters who desire violent revenge upon one another, and all the while, Chan-Wook privileges the viewer with a birds-eye view of this sprawling inter-dependent chaos, while we are left only with an impression of the futility of vengeance.

Ryu’s initial motivation to save his sister is the only example in the film that does not stem from the drives of either vengeance or abject evil – even Yeong-mi’s idea to kidnap Yu-sun is conceived from her hatred of ambitious and rich capitalists.

Ultimately, all we are left able to comment about on the content of the film is how everything every single character did was in vain – but I will save you unnecessary spoilers and hype; it is, if nothing else, an extremely accomplished thriller.

Technically a far cry from the raw narrative experimentation of Joint Service Area, Mr. Vengeance establishes and develops further a number of Chan-Wook trademarks to great effect: the aforementioned black humor, themes of vengeance and extreme violence, and perfect framing, with eye-popping visual and spatial continuity between scenes.

The film is seminal in the director’s body of work for maturing and cementing his style into a recognizable and established one that would come to be one of the strongest and most distinct voices in Asian cinema in the years to come.

It has been criticized for using too much visceral corn syrup and for being excessive in its delivery of violent themes, but the convoluted and pointless nature of the violence we are shown is itself visually demonstrative of the director’s message in the film and in the trilogy at large.


3. Oldboy (2003)

oldboy pic

Oldboy, Chan-Wook’s second entry into his Vengeance Trilogy, is an adaptation of the manga comic book of the same name. It follows Oh Dae-su’s incarceration in an unofficial jail cell, imprisoned by unknown captors for unknown motives.

While imprisoned, his tormentors frequently gas Dae-su with a soporific and hypnotic drug, both in order to keep his sanity levels normal during his fifteen year stay in the makeshift prison and for other unnamed and malicious purposes.

During his time in prison, Dae-su writes a diary – or five of them – full of his wrongdoings, in order that he might figure out who would hold such a grudge against him and eventually exact his revenge upon them. To prepare for the day he will escape, he burrows through the brick wall behind his bed with a spare chopstick and trains himself physically, by drawing the silhouette of a man on the wallpaper and fighting it repeatedly.

His only food is Chinese dumplings, and his only contact with the outside world is through the television: “The TV is both a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend, your lover.” It is also through the television that he discovers that his captor has framed him for the murder of his wife.

One day after fifteen years, Dae-su is inexplicably released from his hovel dwelling, and his quest to take revenge upon his captors begins. Beginning on a rooftop near where he was first kidnapped fifteen years prior, another man stands on the ledge of the building, apparently planning to jump to his death.

Dae-su stops him in order to tell him his story, which apparently has not much purpose other than to introduce the line, “Although I am no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” and for some cheap humor. In fact, despite the façade of having a cheap and gratifying action plot, Oldboy’s script orbits a number of pensive and reflective quotes such as this one. Even when working with what is obviously fast-paced, high-octane content, Chan-Wook’s masterful pace remains calm and contemplative.


We will not reveal too much about the film, as it is a mind bender, and new information is constantly coming at us through Dae-su’s investigation; suffice it to say that Oldboy is the Park Chan-Wook film that gets all the love. It is arguably his masterpiece, and it was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, under the presidency of Quentin Tarantino, who has long been Chan-Wook’s greatest directorial ally in the West.

If a filmmaker’s oeuvre is defined by the work that they create which no one could hope to replicate successfully, then this is almost certainly the defining film of this director’s career (although this fact does not excuse Spike Lee’s abhorrent recapitulation of the movie).

It’s easy to see why Tarantino would have found the film appealing: the cartoon-like violence and physics careen a character possessed by his drive for bloody revenge through long, graphic fight scenes as he battles his way to the explanation for his fifteen year long imprisonment – Tarantino’s Kill Bill films were released in 2003 and 2004 respectively, so themes of vengeance were obviously important to his own work at the time, as well.

However, Oldboy possesses an emotional and psychological depth far beyond its action-cartoon aesthetic, and – though I want to refrain absolutely from spoiling any part of the film – suffice it to say that no one, whether they work in Hollywood or around the world, no one can direct a thriller like Park Chan-Wook does.