Park Chan-wook was born in Seoul and studied philosophy at Sogang University, while he aspired to be an art critic. However, after he watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, he decided to become a director.
His first two films, “The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream” and “Trio”, were low budget productions, with Park later stating that he is still ashamed of them. However, since 2000’s “JSA”, which became the highest grossing film in South Korea at the time, he is considered one of the most prominent filmmakers in his country.
Furthermore, after the “Trilogy Vengeance” and particularly the second part, “Oldboy”, he became world renowned and is now globally considered a genuine auteur. His fame and prowess eventually brought him to Hollywood, where he directed “Stoker” and acted as a producer for “Snowpiercer”, directed by his compatriot, Bong Joon-ho. His last film “The Handmaiden” signaled his return to his home country and has already received great reviews upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Park’s films have a unique and magnificent visual style. However, as he has stated, the technical part comes second in his movies, with the first role being reserved for the characters and the story. His process starts with the writing, and the search for the audiovisuals comes after the script has been concluded. Park insists that he is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and that every element of his films must support the story in the best way.
Two elements characterize his films and make his style stand apart. The first element is the extreme depiction of violence, which is used in a fashion that can only be described as lyrical, as he uses it to present his messages regarding human nature. The second is his dark sense of humor, which appears in the most unexpected moments in his works, drawing smiles even at the most extreme scenes.
Here are 10 of the most distinct moments in his films.
10. Young-goon transforms into a killer-cyborg assaulting the doctors and nurses of the mental hospital. (I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, 2006)
Young-goon persuades Il-soon to take away her “sympathy” in order for her to be able to kill the men in white. Subsequently, she hallucinates that she transforms into a battle cyborg, shooting bullets from her hands while her tongue functions as a bullet magazine. She then proceeds to kill every doctor and nurse, both in the rooms and corridors of the building and the courtyard.
The scene looks very much like a “shoot-em-up” video game, a notion that becomes more evident in the courtyard, when the camera follows the action from far above. The scene is the most violent in the film, but Park’s sense of humor could not be missing. Here, it is chiefly represented by the rest of the mental patients who dance, jump, and generally continue their illogical routine, despite the massacre that occurs all around them.
9. Lee Soo-hyeok and Jeong Woo-jin stand opposite each other in the line that separates the two Koreas. Eventually they start spitting at each other (J.S.A., 2000)
With this film, Park wanted to show the ridiculousness of borders, which he considers as arbitrary since men create them. Furthermore, he examined the psychological impact of borders, which in the case of the two Koreas has a significant meaning, both individually and politically, for the people and for the governments, respectively. In this particular film, he examines the concept with occasional scenes of absurd humor, as is the case with this particular one.
The two soldiers are supposed to consider each other enemies, but have become friends; they start spitting at each other, and they gradually begin to laugh until they can barely keep themselves from bursting into laughter. Their acts become more extreme if one considers that this occurs at the most critical place on the border, across the final line that separates the two countries.
Park uses the scene to show the ridiculousness of the separation by a mere line, and at the same time to show that people from the two countries are actually very similar, even in what they consider funny.
8. Il-soon persuades Young-goon to eat in the most adorable way (I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, 2006)
Young-goon, who is hospitalized in a mental hospital, believes she is a cyborg and that eating food will ruin her circuits. As her belief starts having a large impact on her health, Il-soon, who is in love with her, tries to find ways to persuade her to eat. Since he is an electrician, she makes her believe that he has constructed a food-to-electrical-energy conversion unit (a “rice-megatron”, as he calls it), which he pretends to install on her back. The trick works and he finally gets her to eat.
The scene is not particularly elaborate, cinematically, but it fully incorporates Park’s view of the romantic film, which artfully mixes the extreme, the absurd, the funny, and the romantic. The fact that the equally sick Il-soon is willing to reach such extremes in order to help Young-goon is probably the film’s most romantic notion, and this is the most romantic scene.
7. Lady Ra tries to point to her son’s killers through a game of Mahjong his friends are playing with Kang-woo and Tae-Ju (Thirst, 2009)
Lady Ra, who has already driven herself to shock after her son’s murder by Kang-woo and Tae-Ju, eventually realizes that they are the perpetrators and tries to inform her son’s friends during a game of Mahjong they all play together. She uses different blinks of her eyes as yes or no, and the sole finger she can still slightly move. The two perpetrators try to present her as someone who has lost her mind. However, in the end, Lady Ra succeeds and Tae-ju attacks the guests.
The film, after a point, becomes a thriller and this scene is the most agonizing, as the tension grows in par with Lady Ra’s desperate efforts to declare the murderers.
Park uses a technique where the camera constantly changes places in the narrow room to portray exactly what each of the characters are thinking, although the main focus remains on Lady Ra. Kim Hae-sook, who plays her, has her greatest moment in the film in this scene, magnificently depicting the strain and the desperate resolve of her character. Lastly, Tae-ju’s sudden change from a supposedly innocent girl to a cold-blooded killer is one of the most shocking aspects of the film.
6. As India is playing the piano, her uncle enters the room and accompanies her on the instrument. (Stoker, 2013)
India is initially alone practicing the piano when Charlie suddenly appears and proceeds to compliment what she is playing. Eventually he sits next to her and ups the tempo, in an act that she takes as a challenge, subsequently proceeding into something more complex, as she defiantly looks at him. However, he matches her every movement as the music becomes more complex and then proceeds to sit behind her, putting one arm around her in a peculiar embrace, while he continues playing.
At this point, she surrenders to both him and the music while the sexual tension becomes palpable, with her becoming utterly succumbed to it. When she manages to find the courage to actually look at him, he is already gone.
The scene is wordless, but is filled with subtext as the shifting dynamics become clear through the positions of the two characters. It is also filled with sexual tension that is heightened by India’s eventual unravel, that looks as though he has her under a spell.
The scenes exemplifies Park’s cinema, as the music by Philip Glass, the editing and the camera movement are perfectly synchronized in an audiovisual poem that deems words unnecessary.