Every Park Chan-wook Film Ranked
Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly one of the most important filmmakers of the last two decades. The South Korean auteur is known for quirky, absurdist humour brought out by multiple plotlines within a film and often uses unfiltered and gory action sequences. His films mostly resist labels and are uniquely redefined by the central characters. Park’s prodigal narrative techniques and eye for aesthetics stand out as his most endearing qualities as a director, but his brilliant sense of human emotions and how society is affected by politics, economics, and the social landscape of the times truly makes him a soaring filmmaker. Below is the ranking of all the movies that he has done to date. Happy reading!
10. The Moon Is the Sun’s Dream (1992)
Park’s obsession with vague love triangles is demonstrated by his early works. Although today we have come to adulate and appreciate the refined and polished crescendo to this obsession in ‘The Handmaiden’, Park’s first steps weren’t quite as impressive. In fact, the filmmaker himself rejected any association with the film in an interview. Despite made on a shoestring budget and hardly ay recognizable faces, the film doesn’t look cheap.
The diluted production values can be forgiven, considering Park’s motivation and lack of footing in the film business, but the dreary and delirious plotline, undercooked characters, and half-hearted execution can’t. The film does introduce key themes that Park admirers today cherish such as revenge and hyper-violence. It is a difficult film to find and sit through and certainly isn’t the place to start exploring Park Chan-wook’s filmography.
9. Trio (1997)
‘Trio’ starts in familiar PCW territory but soon derails into a messy and uninspiring melodrama, absolutely foreign to the PCW we know today. ‘Trio’ mostly retains typical Park elements and vestiges of his filmmaking style but also inherits the uncertainty and hesitance of a fledgeling auteur. The plot revolves around the lives of three people, united by the vagaries of fate, fueled by unrelated and quaint motivations, and their reactions to the supposed outcomes of their lives.
A lot has been written about Park’s processes – writing, and then the visualization – into making a film. With ‘Trio’, it seems both of them lacked the conviction that he has acquired over the years subsequently. The writing lacks bite; the individual storylines only seem to have a superficial and forced connection to each other, and most importantly, the humour that so often makes watching a Park movie wholesome is lost on the filmmaker.
8. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The third instalment seems to be the weakest of the Vengeance trilogy. Word of caution: the weakness is only relative. So you can imagine how good the other two are for me to say this. ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ is essentially a kidnapping gone wrong. Ryu hatches a plan with his communist girlfriend to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Dong-jin) to finance a kidney transplant for his sister. Under absurd circumstances, Ryu loses both, his sister and Dong-jin’s daughter. And an internal organ as well to conmen.
The vengeance comes a full circle, in the end, something that will jump on you unexpectedly. Park’s show of avenging personal losses to both Ryu and Dong-jin is comparatively more resonant and standardized – a mix of violence and gore. He plays his cards just right to avoid any confusion of the film being mixed in with various other movies around this theme.
‘Sympathy’ is more grounded in reality and truer to the pure evil that flows through human beings when we suffer a loss like this. The animalistic reaction of ‘an eye for an eye is ubiquitous across cultures and personalities. The spectacular collision of these emotions felt by the three chief characters is poetically executed and is probably the zenith of the film’s screenplay.
7. Joint Security Area (2000)
‘JSA’ might perhaps be Park’s most simplistic, yet impactful movie yet. The delicate subject matter, which has both regional and international political connotations, is craftily integrated with a triumphant story of human friendship and camaraderie. Swiss Major Sophie Jean arrives at the Korean border after a military break out between the two countries.
The incident itself is shrouded in mystery and involves four mean and fifteen bullets. Contrasting testimonies by a South Korean soldier (Soo-hyuk) and a North Korean soldier (Sgt. Oh) leave Jean puzzled. The true story that unfolds in flashbacks is a jarring tonal shift that is probably the most pleasant instance I can remember in film history. ‘JSA’ is bereft of Park’s distinct stylized images and storytelling. His narrative choice, despite being untypical and almost unrecognizable, seamlessly fits in with the story. The moments of humour are so pure and accessible, you forget you’re in a Chan-wook film.
The strange circumstance under which the two blood-thirsty rivals bond almost betrays the central tragedy in both personality and the impact on the characters. The filmmaker inspires wonderful performances, especially from the prodigal Song Kang-ho, each played to the hilt. ‘Joint Security Area’ is arguably Park Chan-wook’s most humane movie to date and might be the one to push the masses towards his extraordinary oeuvre.
6. Thirst (2009)
‘By the time you end ‘Thirst’, you’d be thirsting for more. Combining excessive gore with relentless humour and overt sexual shenanigans, Park redefines the vampire genre. To think of ‘Twilight’ having released around the same time and get quadruple the attention ‘Thirst’ got is manic. Tragedy follows yet another Park protagonist, Sang-hyeon, an unassuming priest who offers himself for vaccination trials for a deadly disease as the trials go wrong. Initially heralded as a healer of God, the priest eventually turns into a vampire and then falls in love.
Song Kang-ho is again atop the human pyramid of co-conspirators who make ‘Thirst’ a success story. Park Chan-wook greatly uses his distinct sense of humour to create odd tonal differences that might be jarring. But they often result in hilarious sequences such as when the two leads were trying to make love with the dead body between them. There’s an interesting body horror spin on vampirism leading to some pretty nasty visuals, but it’s also balanced out by some wickedly dark humour and fun vampire powers. ‘Thirst’ might not be the most subtle in terms of representation of violence and story development but its wild origins are what really make it an interesting watch.
5. Stoker (2013)
Park Chan-wook’s first-ever English feature is a stylish modernist horror that seems more like a fairytale than it seems to be about mortals. The events that unfurl and especially the manner in which it happens, is not consistent with the usual. ‘Stoker’ stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode as the Stokers in focus. The three characters they play are the primary subjects of exposition.
Richard Stoker meets a fatal accident on his daughter India’s (Mia) 18th birthday. To mourn the loss and be reunited with the family again, Uncle Charlie joins the household for a bit. Richard’s widow Evelyn gradually feels attracted to Charlie, who himself seems to have taken a liking to India. The third act brings with itself a harrowing revelation, the cryptic overtones coming undone in the thrilling finale.
‘Stoker’ is inundated with symbolism about youth and adulthood. Due to the multifarious motifs used such as India’s white saddle shoes and Uncle Charlie’s gift (high heels), ‘Stoker’ can be viewed as a coming of age story. India’s transformation into a woman, her growing estrangement from an already alienated mother, and her ability to make decisions for herself all point towards this fact.
Park’s cynicism is reflected in India’s character and is a prominent theme, though intentionally understated, in India’s story. Mia’s love affair with offbeat films and intricate, complicated characters continues with ‘Stoker’. Her central act holds the film together and embellishes Park’s bold ideas. Matthew Goode and Kidman compliment her well, and maybe a bit more of these two on-screen would have been desirable.
4. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay (2006)
‘I’m a Cyborg’ is stylistically distinct from Park’s other works. The set design, the aesthetic choices, the atmosphere, and the emotion the imagery provokes are unlike any other films that best resemble the film or a Park Chan-wook film. Even the humour is more blatant and harmless, unlike typical Park Chan-wook flavour. Its setting of a mental institute itself furthers the cause of unique, meaningless humour. But the Park factor elevates a simple story into a fantasized and absurdist romance episode that is in equal parts joyous and melancholic.
Young-goon ends up in a mental hospital after she cuts her own wrists in an attempt to recharge her empty “cyborg” body. The events don’t change her state of mind and she encounters and bonds with fellow inmate Il-soon. In a bid to save Young-goon from herself, Il-soon takes it upon himself to save her.
There’s an innocence and sweetness attached to the two protagonists and almost every other conspirator in Park’s scheme. It remains intact with the organic progression of the plot into its core, a triumph only a few filmmakers can pull off. Rain and Soo-jung make for an impressive duo on screen, sharing the surrealism and humanity in each other’s characters. The two never quite seem to lose their professional authenticity but remain connected to the veracity of their emotions. ‘I’m a Cyborg’ will transport you to a different kind of experience about love and its expression when it is the only thing that can save a life.
3. Lady Vengeance (2005)
Lee Young-aae’s turn in Chan-wook’s ‘JSA’ is in complete contrast to her turn in ‘Lady Vengeance’. While her English-speaking role and subdued position in the plot may not have exploited her incredible acting credentials, ‘Lady Vengeance’ makes her its lifeblood. Her actions, motivations, moods determine everything about the film: the way it looks, the way it makes you feel, and its state of mind.
‘Lady Vengeance’ definitely ranks as the most sumptuous looking of the Vengeance trilogy. The beautiful closeups are embellished by Park’s typical exquisite framing and aesthetic choices. But more so than the visual splendour, it’s the progression of the plot and Young-aae’s performance that stand out. Recently released from jail, Geum-ja’s remaining years are designed to achieve a singular goal: revenge. She takes help from her inmates and plans to kill the person responsible for putting her away, but discovers a harrowing truth along the way,
In the end, ‘revenge’ assumes a morphed meaning, as you’ll discover. It becomes more than something just animalistic and blood-avenging. ‘Lady Vengeance’ changes from colour to black and white midway, producing gorgeous images. Park creates his perfect film that captures and promotes all his special qualities as a filmmaker.
2. Oldboy (2003)
There are not many characters that have the good fortune of exceptionally well-written character arcs. Choi Min-sik never takes his luck for granted and churns out one of the finest and well-rounded performances of the century. ‘Oldboy’s incoherent rhythm is generally upsetting and might offset a large chunk of the audience. But its uniqueness in dismantling the hope attached to any character in a story and subverting the viewer’s expectation covers its flaws.
The action sequences in the film transgress cinematic pretence and are deeply rooted in the dynamics of a real-life confrontation. Park’s mastery lies in tying up the consequences of any action with a personality trait of the protagonist, or other prominent characters. Oh’s action during a specific martial arts scene establishes a larger and tragic truth about his endless pain and suffering.
The Oedipal ending and Shakespearean sense of tragedy are strongly felt in Oh’s fate and that of the story. The central themes of ‘Oldboy’ touch a gamut of issues both of internal and external nature. Park Chan-wook creates a rare cinematic language and a lyrical experience. Its emphasis is not on theatrics or gore but the remarkable tendency of mankind to feel guilt, repentance, and vengeance.
1. The Handmaiden (2016)
For general suspense enthusiasts, ‘The Handmaiden’ offers the perfect mix of a taut storyline with just enough artistic integrity, both visually and in exposition, to please both audiences and critics. Narrated in three neatly organized interconnected parts, the film is inspired by the events in Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith and revolves around the journey of an orphaned pickpocket to defrauding a Japanese princess. Conniving with a charming con-man, Sook-hee tries to execute the plan, while at the same time, fighting her passion-filled affection for the princess. The big plot twist in the third part is something you should watch for yourself.
‘The Handmaiden’ is characteristic in its visual richness like any other Park Chan-wook film. The authentic recreation of a Korean under colonial Japanese rule is replete with luscious cultural art assortments and attires, imperial royalty, and scenic landscapes. Erotic Japanese traditions ubiquitous among the elite are depicted with a morally contemptuous position of women at the time. The strong female protagonists seem more in a protest to accustom modern sensibilities than to serve the story, which wouldn’t be a bad idea to posit either.
Park does a tremendous job to not allow the dark undertones in the form of human character to dominate his story. His measured output puts to work a fine balance between his unorthodox filmmaking style and the contents of its literary source. ‘The Handmaiden’ is arguably one of the best films of the last decade, both in film creation and in film philosophy.
Also, read why ‘The Handmaiden’ is Park Chan-wook’s best work