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Park Chan Wook's Aesthetics of Violence

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

The new wave of Korean cinema continues to grow in popularity across the world, and few have been more responsible for this than Park Chan Wook, a director of stunning inventiveness and vitality. Despite a somewhat slow start to his career, Park has gradually won over critics on the international stage, garnering a number of prizes at various festivals, including the prestigious Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 for Oldboy (cast: Choi Min Sik, Yoo Ji Tae, Gang Hye Jung). This has been coupled with almost unanimous praise from within the industry, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino falling over themselves to herald him as one of the talented directors working in modern cinema. Perhaps the most telling accolade bestowed on Park came domestically, in the form of a special cultural award, recognizing his work in enhancing the image of Korean films abroad.

In the West, the rise of Park's fame has been similar to that of John Woo in the 1990s, with films like J.S.A. (cast: Lee Byung Hun, Song Kang Ho, Lee Young Ae) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (cast: Song Kang Ho, Shin Ha Kyun, Bae Du Na) winning the all-important internet fan boy vote and spreading the word, paving the way for more mainstream acceptance and success. Although Park himself has said that he would not necessarily be against working in Hollywood itself, he has thus far resisted its attempts to court him, most notably turning down the chance to remake classic horror The Evil Dead. This was quite probably a wise move as it is questionable whether his style or not would translate, with so many of his films deliberately subverting the Hollywood ideal, avoiding the omnipresent central romance, and featuring fractured narratives with uneasy moral choices. Despite this, his fame in the West is only likely to grow, as all of his major works have now had cinema releases, and the inevitable remake process is already underway, with an American version of Oldboy set to emerge in the near future.

Park has been compared by critics to several Western film makers, such as Fincher and Lynch, though it could be argued that these are simply knee jerk reactions based on the look of his films, or by people who choose to take them at face value and label them as "odd".

In fact, upon further consideration, it can be argued that Park most resembles Hitchcock, sharing his wickedly playful nature, not only in some of the delightful visual trickery he often employs, but in the way that he deliberately and with a morbid glee subverts character expectations and the way that the audience identifies with them. In this, Park goes even further than Hitchcock in muddying the moral waters, at times asking the audience to choose between protagonists (perhaps "antagonists" would be a more fitting term), giving a number of complex and sympathetic motivations for their actions and violence, which are often the result of the cruelty of fate rather than actual malice. From this, the films play knowingly upon the fact that the viewers are all too aware that they too could become criminals or worse given a similar set of hellish circumstances. Obsession tends to be the force driving characters of both directors, generally in a manner which dredges up the darker aspects of the human psyche, quite often in subtly sexual terms.

Another characteristic Park has in common with Hitchcock is that while his films tend to have an aura of violence, and the taut expectation of impending brutality, they tend to be so without being particularly graphic, avoiding the gory details in favor of studying their actual effects on the characters. This can be seen in Oldboy, for example, where the scenes of mutilation and teeth removal are exploited for excruciatingly painful tension, though without showing any unnecessary or gratuitous blood. In many ways, this is the mark of a true master; able to manipulate the viewer into thinking they have seen far more terrible things than they actually have, much as Hitchcock did with the infamous shower scene in Psycho.

Although in some circles, Park is referred to as "Mr. Vengeance", this name, which suggests a focus on the more visceral and brutal aspects of his films, rather than the literary or intellectual, and so does the man somewhat of a disservice. Indeed, other, non-cinematic influences can clearly be seen in his work, notably Kafka and Dostoevsky, with themes of imprisonment, paranoia and punishment often coming to the fore. Classical Greek tragedy also rears its head, cunningly mixed with comedy, driven by the undeniable and unavoidable power of fate, and laced together with a bleak and ominous sense of dramatic irony. This is especially obvious in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, whose doomed characters are drawn unwillingly but irrevocably into hatred and murder, and also in Oldboy, with its labyrinth of Oedipal horrors. The hopelessness and nihilism in his films are often ambiguous, being shocking and darkly amusing, bringing a sly grin and a touch of gallows humor to the most horrifying situations.

This level of depth and intricacy is perhaps unsurprising when considering the fact that Park actually started out studying philosophy at Sogang University in Korea, exploring the concept of aesthetics with a view to becoming an art critic. However, after becoming disillusioned by the opportunities offered by his department, he found himself turning instead to photography to feed his creative urges. As with many directors, Park discovered his true calling after a momentous and life altering cinematic experience, in this case seeing Vertigo for the first time. Inspired, Park began writing and publishing critical film studies, and upon graduation moved into the industry, getting his first job in 1988 working as an assistant director to Gwak Jae Young on A Sketch of a Rainy Day.

In 1992 he wrote and directed his debut feature, the thriller Moon is the Sun's Dream, which unfortunately met with little success, forcing Park to work as a film critic in order to make ends meet. Sadly, the same fate met his 1997 sophomore effort, Saminjo, a comedy which failed to gather much notice, as did The Anarchists, for which he wrote the script. Thankfully, Park remained undeterred, and returned in 2000 with J.S.A (Joint Security Area), a film about soldiers camped on opposite sides of the North-South demilitarized zone, which became the highest grossing hit in Korea (until the similarly themed, but markedly less sophisticated Shiri). The film was a success not only due to its political relevance, coming out at a time when relations between the two governments were improving, but because of its emotional richness, being based around a strong tale of tragic brotherhood, duty and honor. Every last ounce of the tension inherent in its scenario was skillfully wrung out with a complex plot filled with political conspiracies and deception. As a result of such universally applicable themes, the film proved to be an international success, finally launching Park's directorial career proper.

J.S.A. also established Park as a director of considerable technical skill, being the first Korean film to be shot on Super 35mm, which gave it the look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster. More importantly, it gave Park the opportunity to build up more complicated screen compositions and to experiment with deep focus techniques.

Interestingly, Park chose to follow J.S.A., which had been a relatively mainstream effort, albeit a brave one, by taking another direction entirely. His next film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, was a bleak drama about botched kidnappings and black market organ transplants, with a sophisticated and intricate narrative, and a set of doomed characters locked into a dance of death. Interestingly, it was written by the multi-talented Lee My Yeong, also responsible for J.S.A., and who went on to act in the likes of My Sassy Girl and A Bittersweet Life. The film exists very much in an amoral, though depressingly realistic void, and makes a profound statement about the ways in which society creates criminals, who are quite often good people driven to savagery by forces beyond their control. Through this, Park was able to deconstruct the nature of retribution, a theme usually glamorized in cinema, here portrayed in a believable and wretched manner. This would be an idea often associated with Park, and which he would return to in his next two films, forming a thematic trilogy.

Although shot in a distinctly minimalist style, the film was visually very impressive, and saw Park employing some quite exquisite and strangely tender imagery, made all the more powerful by the fact that it was so often played off against acts of brutality. The film as a whole was incredibly intense, with a ruthless and unpredictable nature, and was met with mixed reactions upon its initial domestic release. Since then, the film has grown in popularity, with numerous international screenings, including the 2003 Fant-Asia international festival, where it won the director the "Best Asian Film" award.

Park's next film, Oldboy, proved to be his greatest success to date, winning a slew of prominent awards and enjoying praise from critics across the world. The gripping plot follows a man, reduced to an almost bestial state after emerging from an inexplicable, 15 year long imprisonment, searching for those responsible to make them pay for ruining his life. Although shot through with a streak of dark humour, Oldboy is an incredibly intense and involving experience, moving at a breathtaking pace through to its punishing and moving climax. Park again uses his characters to meditate on the essence of vengeance, cruelly pushing them into situations which are astoundingly horrible, yet perfect in their intricacy. The film's ending is more shocking and affecting than any in recent memory, and stays with the viewer a long time after the ambiguous epilogue.

Park followed this by contributing the segment Cut to the 2004 horror anthology Three... Extremes (which also featured Takashi Miike's rather confusing Box, and Fruit Chan's excellent Dumplings), in which a film director is captured and tortured by a homicidal fan, ultimately being forced to make a horrific decision to save his own life. A short, sharp shock, the piece has all the trademarks of Park's full length films, being concerned with exploring the human capacity for monstrous actions. There is a jovial ghoulishness throughout, despite the subject matter, and some clever visual symbolism used to notch up the growing tension as the threats and violence escalate. Although limited by its short running time, leaving the impression that longer could have been spent fleshing out the characters, "Cut" remains enjoyable and worthwhile, and served well to cement Park's growing reputation.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (cast: Lee Young Ae, Choi Min Sik), the long awaited final entry in his revenge trilogy, is Park's latest effort. The film has already enjoyed considerable commercial and critical success in its native Korea, as well as at film festivals the world over, including Venice, where it won several prizes. Slower, and with a less frenetic pace than Oldboy, though ultimately no less ferocious, it attempts to bring a feminine perspective to the revenge motif, though in an honest and thoughtful manner and one far removed from the trashy theatrics of Kill Bill. This time, a great deal of the violence occurs off screen, suggesting a desire to draw the focus away from the visceral aspect of the proceedings, probably due to some critics having in the past labeled Park as a purveyor of "shock" cinema. The film is however equally disturbing, though more through its ruthlessness and lack of compassion, painting a grim, unrelenting picture not only of retribution, but of the consequences it holds for all those involved.

Where Park goes from here is still uncertain, with mooted upcoming projects including a bizarre cyborg love story, and a horror film, either about God and the Devil, or vampires. Whichever he chooses will surely be fervently anticipated by his ever growing fan base and boasting the same contemplative mixture of violence, bleak humor, grim philosophizing, and cinematic skill for which he has rightly become known.

Published December 29, 2005

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