Cinema with Bite: On the Films of Park Chan-wook

As Park Chan-wook's Thirst, his new movie for Focus Features, plays at Cannes, Scott Macaulay casts an eye over the career of the provocative Korean auteur.

In 2006, Park Chan-wook, the South Korean-born director of such morally complex, eye-poppingly intense and tragically violent films as Sympathy for Mr. Violence and Oldboy, told Ian Buruma of the New York Times Sunday Magazine that he thinks of himself as an "ethical man." Only the most culturally regressive would doubt that this could be the case - that a crafter of violent imagery could himself be a socially engaged and moral person. But the fact that Park makes a point of testifying to his own sense of right and wrong when talking to the West's paper of record is a subtle reflection of the types of narratives that compel him. The genre-savvy cinema of Park Chan-wook is one that delivers true movie-movie kicks, but it's also one that embeds its shocks within the ethical dilemmas posed by the world around us. In a 2004 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he explained, "My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. Therefore, rather than movies purporting to be of revenge, it would be more accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter.... Because they are always conscious of and obsessed with their wrongdoings, which are committed because they are inherently unavoidable in life, my characters are fundamentally good people."

For Park, his journey towards becoming a director began in college, where he was a philosophy student. He credits a screening of Hitchcock's Vertigo with giving him "the courage" to pursue a career in film. In an interview he said, "During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head, 'If I don't at least try to become a movie director, I will seriously regret it when I'm lying in my deathbed!' After that, akin to James Stewart when he was blindly chasing after some mysterious woman, I searched aimlessly for some kind of irrational beauty."

Park worked as a director's assistant as well as a film critic for a few years before committing himself to directing. In 2000, he became a superstar in Korea with his second feature, Joint Security Area (J.S.A.), which remains one of the country's highest-grossing films. It's a drama about two South Korean soldiers who secretly cross the border into North Korea to pal around with their counterparts there. When they are discovered, violence ensues, but the film's contemporary political setting leaves it no room for a traditional uplifting ending. Two of the North Korean soldiers are killed, one of the South Koreans commits suicide, and the film winds up as both an ode to friendship between men as well as a parable of international relations.

Park followed J.S.A. with the film that cemented his international critical reputation: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Gone was the affectionate take on carousing soldiers. In its place was a tough, film-noir sensibility. Park had been trying to make the film for six years, having written it in one feverish 20-hour writing session, and for him the film was a break from both the sentimentality of J.S.A. as well as the typical stories found in Korean cinema. "The characters in most Korean films are overly emotional and sympathetic," Park said in an interview, "and I wanted to do the opposite, characters like American hard-boiled fiction figures - cold, flat, pessimistic."

The film tells the story of a rich businessman hunting the couple who abducted and accidentally killed his daughter. But while the setup may recall a Hollywood picture like Ransom, Park's twisting storyline places his characters in a kind of moral quicksand. For example, the kidnapper is a lower-class deaf mute trying to raise money for his dying sister's kidney transplant. When she finds out what he has done in her name, she kills herself. And rather than allow us to cheer the vengeance of the businessman, as in the recent Taken, Park makes us uncomfortable as we watch his grim retribution on the hapless criminals. "In the first half of the film," Park told Buruma in the Times Magazine, "the audience invests a lot of emotion on the deaf-and-dumb kidnapper. Then, in the second half, things are reversed. The audience now has to identify with the father. I find the structure of this movie interesting because it forces the audience to identify with the perpetrator as well as the victim. And the audience doesn't necessarily like doing this."

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a commercial disappointment in Korea, with audiences thrown by the change in style and tone from the previous film. But its mixture of violence, unsettling black humor and, despite the grimness, a compassion for its characters would set the template for many of Park's future films. "Most Korean films depict life as something beautiful, but life is really very difficult," he told Filmmaker magazine. "A lot of people suffer, and that's not often seen in films, so I wanted to be honest about that. But despite the darkness, I wanted to stress the ironic comedy inherent in the movie. It's bitter laughter, though."

Although it received only a nominal release, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance developed a small but influential fan base in America, including Quentin Tarantino and Ain't It Cool News guru Harry Knowles, who dubbed it the best movie of 2002. These fans were excited when Park's next movie, the second of what would become known as his "revenge trilogy," was selected for competition in Cannes in 2004. The film, Oldboy, would walk away with the festival's Grand Prize as well as a U.S. remake deal. The smash hit film tells the story of a businessman abducted one night from the streets of Seoul and imprisoned in a private gulag for 15 years. While in his cell, he learns from television that he's been implicated in the death of his wife. He is released as mysteriously as he's taken and is given five days to figure out who kidnapped him and why. But that thumbnail story sketch does little justice to the movie, which mixes fantasy, animation, one of the decade's best fight sequences (a single-take tracking shot in which our hero defeats a whole corridor of attackers armed with only a hammer), romance, and a complicated narrative that owes much to Park's original cinematic inspiration, Vertigo. He told Filmmaker magazine, "Playing with non-linear time can be a clich'e, but in Oldboy the characters are haunted by the issue of vengeance, which has hindered their emotional development. They are obsessed with something that happened years ago. Oldboy is a film not entirely based on the real. It's not necessarily a film that takes place in Seoul [South Korea] in the 21st century. I used dreamlike conventions and mythological references to place this film into a surreal world. Maybe I have a romantic notion of cinema, but in Korea, film is somewhat myth-like anyway. There is what happens in the 'real world,' and there is what happens in the 'film world.' This isn't to say that there isn't a connection [between the two], though."

The third film in Park's revenge trilogy, 2005's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, was yet another change-up, as different from Oldboy as that film was from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. At its title would suggest, Lady Vengeance turns away from the male-dominated world of the previous two films with the story of a young woman falsely convicted for the murder of a small boy. After being imprisoned for 13 years, she is released and joins with her fellow inmates as well as with the parents of the murdered children of the real killer, a schoolteacher played by Choi Min-sik, the star of Oldboy. Like Oldboy, the film is structurally complex - Park cites John Boorman's Point Blank as an inspiration - but it is more visually subdued than Oldboy. In fact, Park's original plan was for the film to fade to black-and-white as it progressed, a directorial intention only preserved on the Korean DVD. And it deliberately lacks the preceding film's bravura fight sequences and moments of outsized romanticism. Instead, Park's meditation on revenge concludes with an appropriate bleakness and dissatisfaction. "I'm sure these bereaved families have been waiting a long time to have their revenge," he told Bright Lights Film Journal in an interview about the film. "And when they actually have it, I'm sure they're thinking, 'If I can kill this man with my bare hands, how sweet my revenge will be.' Unfortunately, it's not so.... The families felt justified in their act. Afterwards, however, they feel guilt. They started off as victims and turned into aggressors...."

As he had done between J.S.A. and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park staged another directorial reversal after the release of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, a new film he would call "a sweet dessert after a full-course meal." He followed the final episode in his revenge trilogy with an offbeat romantic comedy about a young mental patient who is convinced she's a cyborg and the lover who plays along in order to persuade her to eat. The film wasn't a commercial success, but it was a strange and delightful offering from a director critics felt they had pegged. Reviewing the film at the Berlin Film Festival, Variety's Derek Elley wrote, "Witty, playful, romantic, tragic, Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK is a whole chocolate box of emotions in a highly decorative but absolutely characteristic wrapping." Park explained to Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian that he made the film in order to have at least one film in his oeuvre that his 12-year-old daughter could see: "She didn't like it at first that I was a director, and she didn't want people to find out what sort of films I made. Now she's used to it. But I wanted to make something that she could enjoy with her friends."

With Park's latest film, Thirst, receiving its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the director is adding two more firsts to his resume. A vampire movie, it's his first film dealing with horror and the supernatural, and it's also the first Korean film co-produced by a U.S. studio, Universal Pictures International. Characteristically, though, Park has not stepped away from his penchant for moral dilemmas with this picture. If anything, the film's use of vampire mythology has upped the ante for Park as he again dramatizes the conflicts between man and society. In Thirst, Sang-hyun is a priest who, following a medical experiment, becomes a vampire. With his need for blood clashing with his imperatives as a man of the cloth, he returns home where his powers make him worshipped by the villagers and his unleashed sexuality causes him to fall in love with the wife of a childhood friend, who in turn urges him to kill her husband.

The film contains moments of ultra-violence, a greater focus on sexuality than Park's earlier films, and plenty of the red stuff, but the director is keen to insist that his film should not be judged as just a vampire movie (or, as the Korean press notes proclaim, "a scandalous vampire romance"). He told The Hollywood Reporter, "As soon as one starts to classify a film by genre, whatever it may be, people start to have unnecessary preconceptions. Furthermore, that kind of definition cannot embrace the whole film. For instance, if I said Thirst is a 'vampire romance,' most people will think of Interview With the Vampire, or Bram Stoker's Dracula, even though the romanticism found in those films has nothing at all to do with Thirst. Also, no one will be able to conceive of the religious issues that are embedded in Thirst. But if I really had to come up with an answer, I cannot think of any other than 'vampire romance.' If there is a more accurate way of classifying it, please let me know."

Thirst opens in the U.S. in July from Focus Features.