By Christina Lu ’20
As a film director, Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Friday, January 13, Loew Auditorium) has created a unique brand of cinema—one so brutally dark that when you sit down for one of his films, you know you’re in for a wild ride. He doesn’t shy away from gore or sexual deviancy, instead mixing these elements to create a no-holds-barred experience that rocks us to the core.
After Park made Joint Security Area in 2000, a commercial and critical success in his home of South Korea, he was able to harness his greater creative freedom to create this next three films, which eventually became known as “The Vengeance Trilogy.” While they are not connected narratively, these films contain similar themes: violence, revenge and a fragile redemption.
One of films that has come to define his work is the second in this trilogy, the neo-noir Oldboy (2003). The film won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and received high praises from Quentin Tarantino, a director also known for his use of violence. The premise is already the stuff of nightmares. The protagonist Oh Dae-su is imprisoned in a hotel room-like cell for 15 years. Park’s deftness with framing, combined with surrealist scenes, somehow manages to capture the psychological torture that plagues Dae-su. Through witnessing Dae-su’s journey for answers and vengeance, the viewer soon realizes this is far from the worst that he is put through. All at once, Park creates a gritty film that captures emotions that are very raw, very real, in characters that should be anything but. Its plot complexity and extreme depictions of sexuality and violence make Oldboy a kind of film that is difficult to find in Hollywood anymore. Not one for the squeamish, it is a masterful work that explores the madness of revenge and slices open our perception of human nature.
The final installment in Park’s trilogy is the 2005 psychological thriller Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The female protagonist, Lee Geum-ja, has been through hell and back. We catch her as she is released from a jail sentence on parole (13 years this time, instead of 15) that ensues after she is convicted for kidnapping and murdering a five-year-old child. Again hell-bent on revenge, Park takes us down another bloody rabbit hole that crescendos into a scene that is horrifying and hard to forget, both in its actual content but also in what can be found in the prompted self-reflection. Though this film is not quite up to the level of Oldboy—poignant at times, Geum-ja’s character arc lacks the completeness that Dae-su’s did—it is still a work by Park that delves into the depths of what it means to be human, the ugliest parts, and strips us bare.
Perhaps vengeance is the most powerful theme in Park’s films simply because they seem to turn the lens on us. And what an unforgiving lens it is! As viewers, we are stunned by what we see but also by the judgment we are forced to pass. Though Park freely includes gruesome violence and other morally repugnant devices, it is clear that this is never solely for the shock value. Instead, these elements trap us completely and do not allow us to remain impartial. We are reflexively repulsed and forced into the protagonist’s situation; the actions which we do not like to admit we would partake in are played out in all their bloodiness on screen—causing a visceral reaction in every viewer, while inspiring a reflection of the humanity that binds us all.
The Handmaiden (2016) is no different from Park’s other films, though perhaps not nearly as dark. Instead, it unfolds like a finely crafted puzzle, one that toys with the camera and reveals only what it deems necessary. This is a film struck in perfect balance that shows that Park has mastered his art. Quite frankly, we don’t know what Park Chan-wook will throw at us next. All we know is that it will be a cinematic experience that will shock, stun and maybe allow us to confront the unsavory sides of our nature in the process.
About the contributor
Christina grew up in Silicon Valley, unfortunately. She enjoys working in a printmaking studio, warm weather and watching films—all of them.