By Ben Cho

Over the past fifteen or so years, South Korea has been warmly embraced as one of Asia’s powerhouse filmmaking hubs by the west. One of the true poster boys for this boom is Park Chan-Wook, who first burst onto the scene with his Cannes hit, Oldboy. For some film fans, Park’s name even now eclipses the likes of Hong Sang-soo, Bong Joon-ho and Im Kwon-taek: perhaps a testament to his shrewd ability with genre material and slick mis-en-scene. The acclaim afforded his 2013 English-language debut, Stoker, certainly helped to make his name on the international scene.

Park Chan-Wook on the set of his latest film, The Handmaiden
Park Chan-Wook on the set of his latest film, The Handmaiden

Park’s adept handling of ultra-violence has certainly been a factor in his popularity: electro-shock torture, pulling out teeth with a hammer, slicing off fingers, slitting an Achilles heel, eating a live squid, and cutting off a tongue with a pair of scissors are the most (in)famous examples of his penchant for brutality. To be fair, there’s often a philosophical dimension underpinning the shock tactics, but such tactics have certainly worked in Park’s favour; it’s little wonder that Quentin Tarantino chose to crown Oldboy with the Cannes runner up prize. Park’s other main attribute is his marvellous formal stylishness: a bravura technique merged with an elegant aesthetic which draws upon classical music as much as Kubrick-style fastidiousness with composition. There’s also the fact that Park’s films have boasted some of Korea’s great actors and actresses: Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-shik, Shin Ha-kyun and Bae Doo-na.

Park’s interest in cinema grew during his college years at Sogang University, where he studied “aesthetics” (with an emphasis on philosophy), dividing his spare time between a campus photography club and rabidly watching films from around the world. Hitchcock’s Vertigo was the major factor in his decision to pursue directing, and he soon joined Yu Young-jin’s Ggam-dong as a director’s assistant.

During this period, the budding cinephile consumed everything from Nicholas Ray to Hong Kong action flicks; a book of his reviews, Videodrome: The Discreet Charm Of Watching Films, was eventually released, which displayed Park’s enthusiasm for B-movies as much as mainstream fare. In 1992, Park made his debut feature with the little seen Moon Is What The Sun Dreams Of and the reaction was largely negative. It would take another five years for Park to helm another production, Threesome, a road movie which again was met with critical indifference. Aside from 1999’s short film Judgement, it would take another three years before Park would enjoy the critical and commercial reception he’s more used to today.

A scene from JSA (Joint Security Area)
A scene from JSA (Joint Security Area)

2000 marked this breakthrough with the release of JSA (Joint Security Area), ostensibly a whodunit situated around North-South border tensions. With its imagery of North and South Korean soldiers embracing each other, the film was a box-office smash, elevating Park’s status from a marginalised figure to a “commercial” director. On the back of this newfound reputation, Park would filter the years of B-movie viewing into Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, a hardboiled thriller which earmarked his interests in both savage violence and thematic concerns in revenge.

His 2003 Manga adaptation, Oldboy (which would eventually be remade in Hollywood by Spike Lee) a pleasurably high-concept ode to everything from Rembrandt to De Palma, was Park’s breakthrough in the west, earning critical raves for its super-stylishness and confronting violence. Park’s profile was on the rise outside his native Korea, and his next films also traded off the revenge themes similar to those of Oldboy, but with far less success. Cut (his section of the portmanteau film Three…Extremes) is a stylish yet vapid take on a filmmaker’s encounter with a crazed extra, while the baroque Sympathy For Lady Vengeance is dreadfully facile.

A scene from Oldboy
A scene from Oldboy

However, his contribution to the omnibus If You Were Me, entitled N.E.P.A.L., was a sophisticated look at a Nepalese woman’s wrongful imprisonment, proving Park’s diversity outside of revenge epics. Park Chan-Wook continued his journey to the cinematic extreme with 2006’s I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (a sci-fi tale of robots and madness); 2009’s warped vampire flick, Thirst; and 2013’s Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, in which the director bravely refused any manner of compromise to the American film industry, delivering a stately, beautiful but deliriously strange family drama.

And now with The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook has delivered another stirring, aesthetically stunning work, proving once again that he is a talent to be reckoned with.

A scene from The Handmaiden
A scene from The Handmaiden


JUDGEMENT (1999) Park’s self-contained short set during the aftermath of an earthquake displayed not only an unconventional take on a routine morgue identification but also his interest in elegant musical backing tracks, something which would become a staple of his later work.

 JSA (2000) A striking murder mystery set amidst Korean border tensions, Park’s first major breakthrough set the tone for his classy visual sense and ability to invigorate basic generic conventions.

SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (2002) A pummelling hard-boiled thriller elegantly stylised to the nth degree and with a cast to die for, Mr. Vengeance would not only signal the start of a loose “vengeance” trilogy but also Park’s ability to classily handle even the most unpleasant violence.

OLDBOY (2004) The film which catapulted Park’s name into the west and understandably so: an irresistible premise, marvellous lead turns from Choi Min-shik and Yu Ji-tae, visually assured artistry, outrageous violence and THAT reveal. Rather predictably a Hollywood remake is in the pipeline minus Park.

THE HANDMAIDEN (2016) A dark, brooding tale of deception, sexual perversity, and strange love, Park’s latest effort follows two con artists looking to bilk a wealthy, fragile woman of her money. Things, however, don’t exactly go to plan in this visually arresting masterwork.

The Handmaiden is screening now in select cinemas, and will open wider on November 3. Click here for our review, which features all screening locations.

  • Eric
    8 April 2020 at 8:01 am

    Why does Park Chan Wook look like Bong Joon Ho in the third picture?

    • Dov Kornits
      Dov Kornits
      8 April 2020 at 8:27 am

      woops, thanks for spotting Eric!

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