Today we want to talk about a bloody philosopher and ruthless humanist — a psychologist who studied not so much the causes of negative emotions as their harmful effects; a visionary who transformed acts of monstrous violence into beautiful paintings, and even in the darkest darkness, can find hope. And one of the most high-profile and, at the same time, unpopular Korean directors of our time. Meet Park Chang-wook. We look at some of his films, which reflect the director's path.
A Brief Biography
His story begins without any frills. Park dreamt of becoming an art critic in high school and then tried to enter Seoul University to study aesthetics but ended up at a Catholic University where he studied philosophy. As a student, he experienced a cinematic shock when he saw Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), forever chaining the young beauty lover to the world of cinema.
"The Moon Is... The Sun's Dream", 1992.
Park began saving for his debut work by moonlighting in the film industry: helping with commercials, translating foreign films, and working as an on-set assistant. Then, after a quiet rental of his first picture, the director went into creative contemplation for five years. These failures led to Park Chang-wook not making a full-fledged name for himself in big cinema until nearly a decade later.
"The Moon Is... The Sun's Dream" is an extraordinary work, utterly different in style and maximally distant in its contents from the usual Park Chang-wook's. Instead, it's more influenced by Hong Kong films, especially Wong Kar Wai's "As Tears Go By" 1988.
The plot is reminiscent of melodramas, although it is a classic crime drama. In his first work, Park Chang-wook shows an interest in the themes of violence and justice, showing a cross-section of the criminal lives of several people.
The young director managed to make a drama about life's priorities, love tossing, and a sense of duty. An essential sign of Park's immaturity is the characters: "The Moon Is... The Sun's Dream" prefers to tread on the surface, catching the poetry in details and mundane minutiae.
This movie is entirely different, not fully formed, and perhaps not fully understood by the director himself; where there are many subtle aspects and nuances of life, but none of them strive for vivid emotion and proper development.
"Joint Security Area," 2000.
It is Park Chang-wook's first preeminent and relatively high-profile work on a global scale. The new scale is primarily reflected in the subject matter the young director chooses to focus on.
The film reveals the tragic conflict between North and South Korea, telling a controversial story. We won't go into the retelling of the story. Still, Park Chang-wook was not afraid to show the cynical side of military institutions and that everyone uses propaganda and manipulation no matter what side. For example, the protagonist is the primary witness to the crime and the suspect.
To find out who is guilty of this crime, investigators from Sweden and Switzerland arrive at the demilitarized zone, located on the border of the two warring countries, to investigate the situation.
The narrative gradually departs from the usual detective genre of investigation and moves freely to show everyday scenes of friendly relations between the military of South and North Korea. In addition, the film has a non-linear narrative, so the action takes place several months before the tragic incident. As a result, there is less emphasis on politics, manipulation, and hatred and more on how strangers reunite and see each other as brothers rather than as imposed monsters.
This movie is not about truth and not about finding someone to blame. The culprits are known to us from the beginning, even if they are not shown in the frame, and the so-called "victims" of the confrontation are just people deceived by the system who are lucky enough to finally talk to each other for the first time, putting down their guns. This sweet gesture contains the moral of the film. The main sign of humanity is the ability to listen, to understand the other person, and then, perhaps, to accept.
"Joint Security Area" is a revealing anti-war film where war is not just an armed clash of interests but also an ideologically imposed, ungrounded hatred of one's fellow man. In the best traditions of the genre, the love for human life and a sincere desire to live up to the day when the invisible walls will finally fall, regardless of what is broadcast over the loudspeakers.
The phenomenon of an angry man in a black suit with messy hair and a hammer in his hands has long since left the confines of cinema, becoming a kind of personification of human despair and thirst for revenge.
Park Chan-wook's creation, an adaptation of the manga of the same name, made a huge splash in its day and majestically reminded the world of South Korean cinema. That same year another equally outstanding film, "Memories of Murder" by Bong Joon ho, was also released (you may be interested in reading ).
However, "Oldboy" is famous first and foremost for its bold naturalism, unconcealed symbolism, and double-edged story, which is deceptive right up to the finale. The protagonist is presented to us as a harmless drunken father who, despite his addiction, loves and cares deeply for his daughter.
The hero is kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years: the location, the reason, and the client's name are unclear; there is only the bewildering fact and unknown length of confinement. And then the first plot revelation occurs. "Oldboy" poses the hero with an important question: which is more important, revenge or truth? Dae-su Oh (the protagonist) has the opportunity to take revenge on his abuser almost at the beginning of the second act of the story, but he backs away and begins a brutal investigation into his imprisonment.
"Oldboy" is a story about anger and resentment that doesn't go away but accumulates inside, eating away at your gut. A more beautiful, subtle, and majestic story about a lowly subject cannot be invented. It is a tremendous audio-visual symphony, speaking frankly on intimate topics without judging the participants for excessive madness and obsession. It reveals a dystopian situation in which feelings take control of the mind and animal instincts, wreaking havoc and carnage.
Violence as Revelation
Don't look for hints of rationality and sound justice in "Oldboy" because instead, you'll find only hypertrophied logic and blatant overkill that some may find inappropriate. However, with this picture, Park Chan-wook proved that he is interested in the subtle psychological processes that lead to hatred, the strongest, most sincere, and pure feeling in Korean genius filmmaking.
Through hatred, Park Chan-wook reflects on pain and trauma. And his films are devoid of hope; the characters in his movies surrender to hate and revenge in order to forget. In "Oldboy" the director does not essentially look for the guilty - he craves only reprisals. Every act leads to bloodshed and moral torture, making the movie feel like a highly personal, almost intimate picture that doesn't know how to compromise or simplify conflict for the benefit of the mass audience.
At this pace, Park spent the next few years creating an excellent revenge trilogy that also included "Three... Extremes" (2004), and "Lady Vengeance" (2005), where the director dissects the theme of revenge in various forms.
"I'm a Cyborg," 2006
Any director could envy Park Chan-wook's versatility because, despite the theme of obsession that haunted him throughout his career, he always manages to create unique and distinctive works.
After six years of researching the topic of hatred and its various manifestations, Park decided to take a break and move away from the issue of revenge towards the no less exciting crisis of identity. As a setting, the director changed the aggressive streets to the frightening wards of an asylum. The protagonist, in the form of the oddball girl Yen-gun, considers herself a cyborg and acts accordingly, rejecting human food and interacting with humans like other robots.
With an exotic theme, Park Chan-wook manages to raise the theme of accepting one's inner self in a non-trivial way. The mental hospital allows for portraying extravagant and unusual characters, turning the film into an absurd and even satirical drama. In this way, the director explores an organism devoid of social connections and criticizes the healthcare institution. And it is not about curing incurable diseases but about the fact that people with disabilities are simply cut off from the rest of society and placed in a vacuum, where it should be good. Still, in reality, they are plunged into isolation.
Most of the characters in the film seem destined to wander down corridors, swallow pills, and see the same faces. No purpose, no hope - everything is on a strict schedule. Park Chan-wook proved that his artistic techniques are not limited to physical violence but can portray violence in verbal and mental ways.
"The Handmaiden," 2016.
Before "The Handmaiden," the director spent the decade experimenting with the form, creating "Thirst" (2009), revealing the theme of faith, and "Stoker" (2013), his Hollywood debut. Nevertheless, the period after his debut overseas is interesting for us, as the 2016 film reveals new facets of Park Chan-wook's directorial talent.
The theater of action in "The Handmaiden" becomes the estate of Japanese aristocrats. The director was interested in exploring the family structure of one particular house, where erotic cult, family despotism, and intricate intrigue can be found.
The cornerstone of the artistic design of the film is a new theme of eroticism and the passions going on inside. It reveals a surprising contrast between aesthetics and soulless lust. The power of love and passion pushes every character to act, lie, and build intrigues so that, in the end, they emerge victorious and on the arm of someone who has reciprocal feelings.
"The Handmaid" is a significant picture in Park Chan-wook's filmography, because the director found the strength somewhere deep in his heart to finally let the characters go free. The story told looks childish and innocent by the standards of the author, who never kept away from blood, murders, and other cruelties, and now he had dared to tell a beautiful and optimistic story about two innocent, loving hearts running away from the dirt, intrigues, and morally decaying society.
Park Chan-wook is a virtuoso director, an exquisite visionary, and a radically courageous philosopher who is neither afraid nor ashamed of anything. With cinematography, he repeatedly turns decent people into animals. He exalts them by admiring the human race's beauty and, simultaneously, the spectacle — the dualism of our nature in all its glory. Park is a brilliant author. There is no other word I can think of. A man who has dug deep into the depths of human consciousness as anyone else and pulled out the ugly, frightening, and repulsive images, reflections of the true us that languish deep in the darkness, waiting for the civilized part to let loose and unleash its inner demons.