Stoker may seem like just the latest opportunity to inspect the facial plasticity of Nicole Kidman, but for aficionados of international badass cinema, it’s something much more important – the Stateside debut of Park Chan-wook, the celebrated South Korean filmmaker responsible for a handful of the most popular, and brutal, genre films of the past decade. (Read David Edelstein’s review of Stoker here.) A critic turned director known for tales defined by sleek style and extravagant gruesomeness, Park rose to prominence in 2000 with his military drama Joint Security Area. He then cemented his reputation amongst both fanboys and critics alike with the “Vengeance Trilogy,” of which the middle entry – 2003’s cult-classic Oldboy – was championed at Cannes by Quentin Tarantino (where it won the second-place Grand Prix award), and is now scheduled for a stateside remake this October courtesy of Spike Lee.
Notable for his precise, methodical direction and thematic fascination with not just revenge but with the destructive consequences of violence on both those who suffer it and those who dole it out, Park is one of contemporary film’s most distinctive and unique voices. For anyone looking to catch up on his acclaimed oeuvre before checking out his maiden American effort, the following works are required viewing:
J.S.A.: Joint Security Area
After two largely unheralded films, Park made his first big splash with this 2000 political mystery, whose title refers to the heavily militarized border between North and South Korea. At that checkpoint, a South Korean guard hobbles back home after having killed two North soldiers, an ambiguous incident that a neutral female investigator — endeavoring to overcome gender bias à la Clarice Starling — is tasked with unraveling. Was it an abduction-gone-awry, or cold-blooded murder? The truth turns out to be more complicated and thorny than initially suspected, and Park cross-cuts between past and present in order to both maintain suspense and to structurally mirror how history is inextricably bound up in the here-and-now. Eventually revealing itself to be a “can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” plea for peace and understanding, Park’s breakthrough nonetheless overcomes its sometimes-excessive earnestness through taut plotting that maintains a requisite measure of surprise until its final, tragic moments. More thrilling still, however, is the director’s expertly controlled direction, which has a meticulousness and fluidity that enhances the action’s portrait of grave cross-cultural schisms.
“Vengeance Trilogy” – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance
A deaf-mute attempts to obtain money for his beloved caretaker sister’s vital kidney transplant by kidnapping his former boss’s young daughter, a scheme that leads to suicide, accidental death, and a roundelay of murderous mayhem. A man, mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years for an unknown crime, is released from captivity and goes on a rage-fueled rampage to find the Machiavellian fiend who imprisoned him, only to discover that incest-tinged misery and madness await him. A woman convicted of abducting and killing a child is released from prison and seeks out her male accomplice in order to orchestrate a payback scheme she hopes will offer her tainted soul redemption. In those three tales – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance, respectively – Park investigates the moral complexities of revenge with a surgeon’s scalpel, even as his characters dispense punishment with a ferocity that’s disquieting, if not outright horrifying.
Hate, and elaborately conceived retribution, spawn only more of the same in Park’s heralded trilogy, resulting in universal suffering devoid of salvation or solace. His camerawork exhibits dexterity and inventiveness even as it maintains strict spatial focus on his characters’ interpersonal dynamics. Their often-flashy style consistently amplifying substance, the films are grimly moralistic condemnations of cruelty and bloodshed characterized by awesome visions of the internal and external toll sadism takes on those who embrace it. Whether it’s a man in Mr. Vengeance slicing open his stomach in a desperate outburst of anger and misery, or a crazed antihero in Oldboy felling an army of attackers in a narrow hallway while armed only with a claw hammer, Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” abounds with unforgettable sights that speak to violence’s nasty futility.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK
In most every respect, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK sticks out of Park’s clenched-fist canon like a sore thumb. The aggressively oddball fable of a young girl who, because she believes herself to be half-human, half-machine, is committed to a mental institution, where she’s slowly healed by the love of a crazy kleptomaniac, Park’s romantic comedy is a humorous and lighthearted lark devoid of unsettling grisliness. Though his heroine is possessed by hallucinatory visions of opening fire on the establishment’s staff with fingertip machine guns – allowing Park to deliver at least a bit of his signature ultra-violence – the director’s breezy trifle operates as the flip side complement to his prior films, championing selfless altruism and affection as the transcendent therapeutic answer to impulses of a homicidal sort. Throughout, Park helms his material with elastic imagination, his camera spinning, floating, gliding, and careening about with exhilarating freedom. Often too deliberately kooky for its own good, it remains a bracing example of a director stepping out of his comfort zone to tackle familiar themes from a fresh, cockeyed angle.
After his detour into more cutesy territory, Park returned to crimson-stained territory with Thirst, a modern vampire saga in which the hunger for flesh is inherent and uncontrollable. An altruistic priest agrees to be a test subject for a fatal virus, but when an ensuing blood transfusion brings him back to life, he discovers that the only thing that suppresses his lesions is blood. Reborn as a supernatural carnal creature, the Father falls in love with a crippled man’s wife, whose merciless fury at her spouse and his domineering mother, when coupled with her awakened lust, spell doom for everyone once the priest turns her into his vampiric mate. Park stages his supernatural characters’ chases across rooftops and mahjong-night massacres with a visual vitality marked by unreal CG effects, though as always, the director maintains primary concentration on his protagonists’ inner struggles to reconcile their humane and monstrous instincts. Less concerned with breaking new ground than with putting a novel spin on time-honored tropes (e.g., The priest acquires blood via comatose hospital patients’ IV tubes), the film finds Park examining brutality’s ultimate uselessness with newfound sumptuousness. And in its more overt and sensual commingling of sex and violence as innately intertwined forces, it proves a chilling precursor to the familial and pubescent coming-of-age chaos of Stoker.