Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Most Americans know Korean writer/director Chan Wook Park—if they know him at all—from Oldboy. Of the five feature films he’s written and directed, for some reason, this was the only one that crossed the ocean and became a fairly well-known arthouse hit. If you’re a reasonably plugged-in movie fan, chances are you’ve either seen Oldboy or you’ve been meaning to for a while now. If you’re in either category, I have one small request I’d like to make, if it’s not too much trouble:
Don’t stop there.
Most people assume that since Oldboy is Park’s only “hit” here in America (and “hit” is relative in Korean-language films; Oldboy grossed a mere $707,000 at the U.S. box office, although surely it’s had pretty strong DVD legs), it’s his best movie. Not true! By my humble estimation, it’s only his third-best film, which doesn’t even put it in the top half. If you loved Oldboy, just imagine how great those other two movies are! And if you thought Oldboy was only kinda good (as I did on first viewing), I beg of you not to write Park off just yet.
Chan Wook Park is the kind of guy who was born to make movies. He seems to be almost deathly allergic to cliché, doing everything in his power to make every single shot in his films jump out at you with its breathless originality. He can make a shot of a person waiting in line at the DMV look unforgettable. His eye for color and composition alone puts him in the top ranks of directors working today. The colors are usually bright and unexpected, wallpapers matched with shirts in a take-your-breath-away clash of mis-en-scene. He particularly likes alternating between very long shots and very close shots, with nothing in between. His frames are carefully and unexpectedly composed, so information-packed that he often just cuts into them like they’re frozen tableaus, lingering on the clever set-up he thought of as you catch up with all the plot and emotional-forwarding information he’s carefully shown and withheld in the frame.
Park is one of those filmmakers who’s so good that he likes setting up little challenges for himself. He takes a genre, fits a story to it, figures out what a normal team of writers and directors would choose to show in that story, and then does not allow himself to show anything the normal filmmaker would shoot. As a small for instance, in Lady Vengeance, we see a quick flashback of a guy who hit a bicyclist with a truck. Here’s how Park shows this: We never see the accident, never see anyone even moving. Instead, we see a shot of an idling truck, with the driver staring wide-eyed, static and shocked at something off-screen, leaning out of the window at an odd angle that for some reason is really cool, although you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then another perfectly composed tableau of the biker lying on the ground at another bizarre, Park-ian angle.
Park has an uncanny ability to find the perfect detail to focus upon. In a scene in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a woman is being tortured via electrocution for information. Park places his camera low to show her feet twitch in perfect rhythm to her pulse. If these examples make Park’s movies sound overly violent, perhaps they are. But perhaps not. Much like early Quentin Tarantino, Park’s films generally only feature a few acts of violence…but he’s such a skilled filmmaker that he really makes you feel those acts of violence. They loom so large they make movies with far larger body counts feel much more tame by comparison.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
My favorite Chan Wook Park movie. You know how with a lot of foreign films, you have to make concessions for the foreign filmmaker for not being American and super-hip? Like all those sappy ballads in John Woo movies, or the incredibly boring stretches that seem to haunt even the best Wong Kar Wai flick? Well, I don’t feel that watching Mr. Vengeance. In fact, as an American, I feel singularly outdated, as if Park is a harbinger of the Asian century pundits tell is to come. Mr. Vengeance just feels more advanced than even the best American movies, a movie made by someone more intelligent and further ahead of the curve than even our most cutting-edge cinematic minds here. If more Chan Wook Parks spring up in Korea, Japan, and China, Hollywood’s place as the undisputed center of the movie universe will be in grave danger.
The first in the “Vengeance Trilogy” (along with Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), Mr. Vengeance is about a kidnapping gone awry, a daisy chain of innocent people out for violent, justifiable revenge against other innocent people who wronged the first people while seeking justifiable revenge against other people. Park is very versatile filmmaker (if not a writer) in that he forges a unique style for each of his films. Mr. Vengeance finds him at his most elegant and simple. The lead character in the film, a laborer named Ryu with lime-green hair who goes to extremes to get a kidney transplant for his dying, beloved sister, is deaf. Park honors this guy’s deafness throughout the film so assidulously that Mr. Vengeance is close to a silent film, if silent films used non-dialogue sound in always-inventive, off-beat ways. Park continually keeps you off-balance with the information he withholds, the action he skips over, and the information-packed tableau framings who’s meaning only becomes clear as the scene slowly plays out inside them. It’s filled with gorgeous sequences, repetitions and shots that shouldn’t be beautiful but are: e.g. an overhead shot of a man dragging a bleeding man through a shallow lake, with big, billowing clouds of red blood puffing out behind the man.
It’s all just so frickin’ stylish, man. Trust me.
Lady Vengeance (aka Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (2005)
Where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is spare and minimalist, Lady Vengeance is lush and overfilled with ideas and flashbacks. A story about a model inmate with an angel’s face who’s released from prison and sets out on elaborate plan of vengeance cooked up during her years behind bars, it’s a sugar rush that’s almost too sweet to swallow. The closest stylistic comparison would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, but where Jeunet celebrates preciousness and cuteness in his heroine, Park celebrates wickedness and macabre irony. There is cuteness—Park’s heroines are usually gorgeous, but in a slightly off-beat way. And he also shares a Fellini-esque penchant for grotesque, bizarre faces. Check out the Christian preacher with the Anton Chigurh pageboy cut matched to a creepily friendly weathered face, or the obese prison mama who forces female inmates in their all-pink cell to perform oral sex on her as she screams in contorted ecstasy.
Check out the opening few minutes (complete with super-cool credit sequence) to see the Asian Coen Brother at work:
The colors and textures of the production design are sometimes almost too striking and gorgeous to look at. Lady Vengeance is an overload of stimuli, and it’s narrative structure matches its design philosophy, filled with flashbacks and narrative loop-the-loops. In fact, if there’s one criticism to label at Lady Vengeance, it would be that it can be a bit hard to follow at times, particularly for Americans. For all I know, the actors on-screen are big stars that Koreans have no trouble keeping track of, but for me they’re all new. And Park’s (brilliant) preference for omitting expository scenes more conventional filmmakers would show do sometimes put the audience member a bit behind the curve. But that’s quibbling: Lady Vengeance is a feast for the senses, a brilliantly inventive director in his absolute prime letting loose every idea that pops into his head.
Oldboy starts with one of the all-time great movie set-ups: a man with no known enemies is plucked off the streets for no clear reason and put in a mysterious jail cell for fifteen years. Then, just as mysteriously, he gets released and has five days to figure who imprisoned him—and more importantly, why. Oldboy is filled with the usual Chan Wook Park restless inventiveness, an unwillingness to bow to even one cliché or standard way of shooting things or imparting information. It does, however, have a tendency to wear you out. At 115 minutes, it’s probably too long by fifteen minutes or one or two big plot twists.
Oldboy is also a film that gets better on repeated viewings—which is pretty much true of all of Park’s detail-filled films. Once you get past the convoluted tale of just who is exacting this revenge served cold, once you know where it’s going, you can relax the part of your brain struggling to piece together the plot and just concentrate on the bravura sequences and little touches Park brings to all his films.
JSA: Joint Security Area (2000)
Park’s first feature and something of an apprentice film. It’s starts out like a police procedural, a film built upon clichés—which is what makes it seems like an apprentice work for the cliché-allergic Park. But it gets better as it goes along. This is sort of Korea’s A Few Good Men. An international team led by a female Korean emigrant investigates an incident along the DMZ separating North and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. The truth, of course, is far more complicated, and like a well-constructed detective movie, the fim starts working backward in time, revealing the true nature of the events that led to the deaths. It never quite transcends its genre trappings and the somewhat treacly we’re-all-just-Korean- friends-deep-down message at its core, but it’s a worthwhile film and offers a glimpse of Park getting his bearings and learning how to be a filmmaker: the film gets better as it goes along.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay (2006)
Park’s first movie after the vengeance trilogy is a little uneven. He seems to not quite know what to do with the ridiculously fully-developed filmmaking mastery he developed over the trilogy here. The film mostly takes place in a mental asylum, and is a love story of sorts between an ingénue who thinks she’s a cyborg and a kleptomaniac. The movie’s packed to the gills with eye candy visuals, but it’s sort of all over the place in the storytelling, and never quite comes together as a fully unified piece. There’s still plenty of treats in here to make it worth viewing, though…particularly a fantasy sequence where the “cyborg” goes on a killing spree of doctors at the asylum. Just trust me, it’s unique in the annals of film history. This one’s a little tough to track down in the States, unfortunately. It’s not officially been released on DVD, but you can find high-quality, professionally-subtitled versions of it for sale on Amazon.
This film is actually comprised of three shorts by cutting-edge Asian directors. Takashi Miike, the Japanese provocateur familiar to fans of the extreme, handles one section, Fruit Chan another (no clue), and Park directs a segment called Cut. It’s a sort of meta-thing about a director and his wife getting taken hostage in their home (or is it the set of his movie?) by a disturbed extra. As always, the colors and visuals amaze, and there’s moments of transcendence, but like most films in anthology pieces, it feels a bit tossed-off.