Twenty-first-century cinema is one plagued by extended universes, franchises, and reboots almost mechanically churned out in a business plan to extract as much money from a public that needs to be entertained, to be offered an escape from a rapidly self-destructing world. Considering this, it then becomes difficult, almost near impossible, to find true pieces of cinematic art. But, if you take yourself further from American cinema, further even than the European landscape, you’ll enter the world of the extreme, dark, and yet, violently poetic work of Korean director, Park Chan-Wook.
Chan-Wook’s Point of View
Park was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea and initially pursued a career as a filmmaker after seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo, during his time at Sogang University. After his first two feature films were unsuccessful, he later shifted over to become a film critic.
In 2000, he returned with Joint Security Area, which was hugely successful both commercially and critically inside of Korea, allowing him creative independence with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first in the critically dubbed ‘Vengeance Trilogy’. He later claimed greater critical success at Cannes Film Festival, taking the Grand Prix with Oldboy in 2004, and Prix du Jury with Thirst in 2009. In 2016, he released The Handmaiden, to even more critical acclaim and commercial success across the globe.
With the exception of I’m A Cyborg, Park’s genre of choice is the thriller, whether dabbling with a neo-noir mystery thriller like Oldboy, or psychological erotica with The Handmaiden, the twist and turns of uncertainty and suspense flow throughout the films. It could be considered that Park to an extent forms his own genre, filled with twisting narratives, complex characters, and an iconography of vengeance and violence. A noticeably Park Chan-Wook film.
One quite obvious theme located within Park’s film is the idea of vengeance; most interestingly, however, is the way in which this idea of vengeance links throughout the films outside of his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’. The theme isn’t simply violent ‘revenge’, for the vengeance within these films reflects old world ideals set against the backdrop of the capitalist society that emerged in South Korea during the post-2000 era. This is a society that has lost its sense of identity and nostalgia, after nearly a century of being controlled and oppressed, such that Park uses the symbol of Vengeance as a practical and sudden redemption. This transgression of control, a revolt against oppression, can also be found in the use of his protagonists, specifically the males who turn themselves into spectacles; they are to be revered, to transfix the viewer through their strange, oddball appearances, and their use of violence. Intended to represent an extreme display of masculinity, such males subvert the traditional theory proposed by Laura Mulvey around gaze within cinema. In a simplistic sense, Mulvey’s theory contends that women are used as objects within cinema, with the camera lens itself representing an entirely male gaze. This is developed further in The Handmaiden, where the eroticized nature of the female characters enables them to take control, and instead of being tools of the male gaze, objects of the camera, they actually begin to transcend this viewpoint, using their sexuality as a form of empowerment.
Park has a unique approach to filmmaking, reinforcing the idea that he is a modern day auteur. Fundamentally, the key element of his style is the emphasis on narrative, story and characters, as opposed to an emphasis on the technical components of filmmaking. He’s forged a canon of films whose narratives are original, intricate and challenging. Each character (even the secondary characters) have been carefully constructed to have their own personalities, thoughts, issues, and goals, almost becoming autonomous within the films.
Many of these characters, in particular, the aforementioned protagonists, are vivid caricatures, extenuated oddballs who quite often are isolated either within themselves or with what they wish to achieve. Compare, for example, Oldboy and I’m a Cyborg. Despite being completely different genres and style of filmmaking, the major component that connects these characters is their peculiar looks and odd personalities.
In terms of the technical form of his films, Park primarily uses handheld cameras, but not in the obvious or traditional sense. The camera is used subtly, becoming part of the film in such a way that it does not to make itself apparent to the audience. This subtlety allows for a deep focus on the narrative and story, meaning that the audience can fully immerse themselves in the world Park has created.
Much like his characters, the visuals created by Park appear equally vivid and ridiculously excessive, yet not so much in a way that they distract the audience from the actual story. All the elements flow together in a very natural way, so much so that they work to project a sense of realism in what is essentially a very surreal environment that would have no place in the modern world. The colours simultaneously contrast and complement each other, creating harmonious conflicts much like the thematic and narrative elements of his film, It is possible to take snapshots of pretty much any of his films, finding within them endless components of both the mise-en-scene, the lighting, and the colour palette, in order to discuss the ways in which they function within the film- everything being carefully placed within the shot.
Park Chan-Wook has cemented himself as a renowned filmmaker through his consistent ability to deliver critically outstanding work, whilst in keeping with his own ideas and filmmaking politics. It’s difficult to argue that based on his development of original complex narratives, spectacular and absurd characters, and his consistent deconstruction of boundaries, identities and modern ideas across the entire body of his films, that he is not simply one of the legendary Korean filmmakers, but in fact one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of film, and is indeed a true Auteur.