The Handmaiden comes out October 27. Buy your tickets here!
If you know the films of Park Chan-wook, you know he loves revenge like J.J. Abrams loves lens flares or Kenneth Branagh loves dutch angles. Frankly, he probably loves revenge more, as he’s built his brand on making movies where someone, somewhere, is wronged and tries to get even. For the most part, that involves lots of bloody violence, not the fist-pumping action kind but the stomach-flipping barbaric kind. Park doesn’t make movies for the faint of heart. He makes movies for people who find joy in the sight of simulated dentistry performed at the business end of a claw hammer.
Except for his new movie, The Handmaiden, which is stunning but also (mostly) lacks the fits and spurts of extreme violence that characterize his cinema. If you absolutely must have a little vengeance in your South Korean viewing diet, no worries: The Handmaiden is vengeful, just not in the same vein as Park’s other movies. That’s because Park can’t help but be vengeful. It’s the point of interest that unifies nearly all of his pictures, from bad to good, noir-fused to comical, impressionistic to direct. The truth is that you can marry revenge to just about any genre imaginable, because “revenge” itself isn’t really a genre. It’s a niche. In the case of Park, it’s a way of life.
So with The Handmaiden hitting theaters, it feels appropriate to sit back and figure out how it matches up against his other movies, whether his “pure” revenge movies or his genre benders. It’s time go roll up our sleeves, put our eyeballs on Park, and order, once and for all, his combined offerings in a most definitive fashion.
???) The Moon Is...the Sun’s Dream/Trio
...okay, so this ranking isn’t going to be that definitive after all. Like many human beings on this Earth, I have seen neither The Moon Is...the Sun’s Dream nor Trio, Park’s first two films, which probably makes me a pretty crummy Park fan. In my own defense, I’m not alone, though that’s admittedly not much of a defense; it’s true that both films were, for a time, notoriously difficult to track down, though The Moon Is...the Sun’s Dream enjoyed its digital premiere back in 2014 and can be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray through most online Asian DVD vendors. It’s also true that no one who has seen these films has had very warm things to say about them. They did so poorly, commercially and critically, that Park scrapped the whole “filmmaker” thing and tried to make a living as a film critic, which is like eating cupcakes to lose weight.
Basically, I’m giving myself an “out” for not having the authority to give opinions on these two movies. It’s worth pointing out that you can find clips from The Moon Is...the Sun’s Dream and Trio on Youtube, but then again, maybe it’s better not to see them, because they might ruin my image of Park as an auteur, and that would just be a big damn tragedy.
9) Cut/Never Ending Peace And Love
Grant that Park has made more than two shorts, but also grant that only Cut and Never Ending Peace And Love were included as segments in omnibuses and anthologies. (Hell, he even double dipped on Cut, which he snipped a minute out of for use in 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero back in 2011.) They might not be feature length themselves, but they are integral parts of feature films, which demands their presence here.
Cut in particular feels relevant, landing on the release calendar right between 2003’s Oldboy and 2005’s Lady Vengeance; at the time it felt like an appetizer to tide us over as we waited for the concluding chapter of the Vengeance Trilogy, though in retrospect it wasn’t really worth all the empty calories. Cut, among Park’s collected works, is kind of a dud, a half-baked gesture made as a concession to his own status as “the revenge guy” that lacks a greater reason for being. As with most Park movies, Cut looks terrific, but it scarcely even qualifies as a revenge movie: It’s more a “jealous, petty asshole” movie that features the word “revenge” in the script toward its climax. That’s about it. Never Ending Peace And Love, by contrast, is pretty great, as is the film it’s housed in, If You Were Me; that movie, at least, lets us see a humane side of Park that we rarely get to even in his full-length productions while still keeping all of his critical faculties intact.
8) I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay
And now we get to the good stuff: Park’s theatrically released, feature-length, known quantities. But I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay proves that being both feature-length and recognizable in his oeuvre isn’t the same thing as being “good.” In case that needs to be spelled out, let it be said in plain English that I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay isn’t a good movie; it’s perhaps the single most frustrating movie Park has ever made by virtue of inconsistency. There’s a good movie tucked within its bloated, misshapen structure, but it’s overwhelmed by excess and narrative drag. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay is one of Park’s shortest movies, clocking in at 107 minutes, but it feels about 30 minutes longer than that thanks to too many character detours and too much meandering.
The material that works sears right onto our brains, like an extended sequence in which the film’s protagonist, Young-goon (Im Soon-jung), goes on a bloody, imagined rampage through a hospital, gunning down orderlies a’la the Terminator; the material that doesn’t work just makes us wish we were watching the film that I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay gets to be during its wackier, darker reveries. Seeing Park upend a genre that’s as prototypically cutesy as romantic comedy is gratifying outside the context of the film, but man, it’s the biggest shame of all shames that the film itself is so hopelessly disjointed.
The gap between I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and everything else that Park has done is pretty wide. Don’t even call it a “gap.” Call it a void. It’s cliche to say, but the truth is that even bad Park films are generally better than most decent movies made by human beings who are not Park, but the leap from his lesser films to his good films, and then from his good films to his best, is rather massive. Even with all that being said, 2009’s Thirst isn’t a great movie, but it’s good, gory fun, insomuch as Park movies can be reasonably described as “fun.” It’s Park’s “kitchen sink” project, a picture he seems to have put together after a late night sugar-fueled genre binge, a story of epidemics and vampires and pure carnal lust that isn’t afraid of viscera, virulence, or voracious sexuality.
Back in 2009, Thirst was the tonic we needed in the Twilight-era of monster movie mush. Today, it’s a gruesome oddity among the rest of his more refined efforts, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out. You may just wish Park had self-edited a bit, maybe reigned in a couple of his reference points instead of pouring all of his crazy onto the screen at once. It’s a mercy that the film remains watchable, and a testament to Park’s skill as a director.
The Brian De Palma movie Brian De Palma didn’t make. Stoker, for all of its many virtues, was unloved upon release, particularly in contrast to most Park movies, which tend to set certain critics into states of unhinged, orgiastic praise. (Kinda like me. Mostly like me. Precisely like me. It’s me.) But the film deserved, and still deserves, much more positive reinforcement; it’s great but mostly undermined by its climax, which lands on a few unearned conclusions and sacrifices a fraction of cohesion just to shoehorn in a capstone to its incestuous overtones and graduate Mia Wasikowska from “disturbed child of a disturbed family” to “stone cold cop killer.” If you’re the type to fill in a movie’s blanks for it, then Stoker is mostly a smooth ride, not easygoing or uneventful but free of any major blemishes.
In fact, the opposite is true: Stoker is minor Park, but “lesser” doesn’t mean “poor,” and for those uninitiated to his work it might be the best introduction to what Park is all about as a filmmaker. The cast is uniformly terrific (Wasikowska and Matthew Goode feel especially well-suited to the kind of story that Park is telling), it’s gorgeously made, and as the first movie Park made within the American studio system, its innate nastiness is as welcome as it is surprising. Stoker violates taboos on the same level as Oldboy, and that’s saying something. (It improvises weaponry pretty damn handily, too, replacing toothbrushes with pencils in a pinch.)
5) Joint Security Area
Remember just a couple paragraphs ago when I talked about gaps and voids and leaps? Joint Security Area is probably the biggest leap over a gaping void that Park has pulled off throughout his entire career, and if you want to know why, just go back even a few more paragraphs and search for those Youtube clips for The Moon Is...the Sun’s Dream and Trio. Maybe both of those films are secret masterpieces, but if they are, they look nothing like Joint Security Area, and thank Christ for that. You can talk about Joint Security Area as a movie, and you can talk about it as the most significant evolution in Park’s direction; odds are the latter is more important than the former, because without that artistic transformation we might well be living in a world without Oldboy, The Handmaiden, and Stoker, plus the films that Park has put his weight behind as producer, like Snowpiercer.
But we’re not here to speak strictly of how Park Chan-wook became Park Chan-wook (origin story: He was bitten by a radioactive hammer and has been seeking vengeance on his parents’ killer, who happens to be a robot vampire, ever since). We’re here to talk about his movies, and so against all odds we circle back around to Joint Security Area, a movie concerned not with cycles of revenge but more general cycles of hatred and enmity. Park's films don’t typically display pronounced tones of spirituality (with exceptions!), but there’s a definite “Mark 12:31” vibe here, coupled with a sociopolitical critique that thrums like a dirge. There’s a sadness to much of Park’s work, but that sadness is most palpable in Joint Security Area’s DMZ whodunit, in which men taught to see each other as enemies develop unexpected friendship, only to see that friendship torn asunder in all the time it takes to squeeze a pistol’s trigger. Park’s most notorious efforts bruise flesh, crack bones, and pry teeth; Joint Security Area breaks hearts.
4) Lady Vengeance
It may come as little shock that a dyed in the wool Park nerd would rank the Vengeance Trilogy pictures highly in a long-form classification and ordering of his work. Then again, Lady Vengeance, the concluding chapter in that loosely related trio, is the most unloved of the bunch, assuming you assign any value to the impugnations leveled against it: it’s badly paced, it’s just too gosh darn violent, it’s hollow, und so weiter und so fort. But these criticisms aren’t new; people have accused every movie Park has made of the exact same things since he discovered his true calling as a philosopher of retribution back in 2002, which either means that his critics have a point, or they’re just lazy and hate good movies. Let’s go with the second one.
So Lady Vengeance is theoretically no different from Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, except that it is: the film paints in broader black and white brushstrokes than its predecessors, clearing the viewer’s conscience of all traces of moral ambiguity. You understand where both of the two leads in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are coming from, and even though Oldboy’s Woo-jin is, at the end of the day, a shitty, entitled, overprivileged child, Park wants us to empathize with his personal torment all the same. Lady Vengeance ain’t having none of that. The protagonist, Geum-ja, is innocent of the specific crime she’s in jail for, her collaborator, the man who betrayed her to the authorities, is a child-murdering motherfucker, and there you have it, neat as you please: she deserves her revenge, and he deserves to die. The film isn’t quite so simple as that, of course, because it’s a Park film, meaning it’s as layered thematically as it is visually.
Lady Vengeance is interested in violence as a practical means to an end, and therefor forces Geum-ja to meaningfully wrestle with her actions in ways that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a movie about perpetualization of violence, and Oldboy, a movie about the catharsis of violence, do not. Maybe it isn’t superior to its movie siblings, but it isn’t unworthy of their kinship, either.
If there’s a single word that you associate with Park Chan-wook’s name, rather than a single phrase or concept, it’s Oldboy. Joint Security Area may be the film that helped him become an internationally recognized figure in world cinema, but Oldboy is the film that solidified his status as one of the most talented filmmakers in the South Korean New Wave: It’s slick, it’s cool, it’s unrelentingly grim and brutal, and beneath all of its flash, it’s thematically intricate. This is the kind of movie other directors will stare at and wish they directed themselves. The proof? Several years’ worth of chatter about a remake that we finally got in 2013, and which turned out to be less than good, even with Spike Lee steering the wheel.
Lesson learned. You don’t mess around with Oldboy. Park’s rejection of humanity is one of a kind, or to put in more direct terms, it’s individual to him. No one else could construct a film about two men seeking the thing they desire most, retaliation against one another, and then so cruelly punish them once they both get what they’re after. There’s wisdom in the lesson Oldboy teaches us.
2) The Handmaiden
Too soon? Not at all: The Handmaiden’s newness is no obstacle in the race toward the top of Park’s collected works. It’s good, better than good, even, supremely Park-ish in the ways we all demand Park films to be and yet totally unlike him in its realignment of focus. It’d be unfair to Park to say his films lack feminine empathy or perspective, but not even Lady Vengeance, a film about woman taking revenge on a man, so gleefully mucks around with the functions of male dominance as The Handmaiden, and if you describe the film in a word, that word must be “gleeful”. The film is as close to a “romp” as Park may bother making, demonstrating, in flashes, a surprising propensity for folding screwball humor into an otherwise macabre setting.
Oh, right, also: the sex. There’s tons of it, and it’s graphic, not quite on the same level as a Blue is the Warmest Color but close enough that if you found that film problematic, then you’ll probably reject The Handmaiden, too. But The Handmaiden actually has a perspective on its wanton nudity and simulated scissoring; Park knows that sex should be sexy, but he isn’t playing the pornographer here. Rather, he’s playing the humanitarian. The Handmaiden cares about its two central lesbian protagonists, far more than it cares about its male element and even more than its male element cares about its lesbian protagonists. There’s an innate sweetness to the exploratory lovemaking between its principal characters that compliments the film’s depictions of coitus and balances lust with tenderness.
It helps that Park is a supremely gifted filmmaker, and that he wraps his presentation in some of the best filmmaking you’ll see in a theater this Fall (hell, this year). The Handmaiden is the type of movie you’ll want to live in, all dangers and backstabbing and creepy torture dungeon stuff aside. But it’s also the rare film that reminds us of Park’s compassion as a storyteller.
1) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
It’s hard to make the distinction between “favorite” and “best.” (Arguably, it’s also a meaningless distinction, but that’s another argument for another time.) Oldboy, of all the films on this list, is by far my favorite Park film, and my favorite film of all time; it’s the movie that taught me the value of a second viewing and the importance of managing hype, and to this day, I still find new details to mull over when I revisit it. (It only occurred to me a few years ago, for example, that the speed at which the film runs through Dae-su’s 15 year imprisonment is part of the point and part of the horror: That in the blink of an eye and the passage of minutes, a percentage of your life can vanish and shuffle you further along your mortal coil.)
But Oldboy isn’t Park’s best movie. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is. Sympathy is both perfectly made and perfectly articulated in thematic terms; like so much of what Park does, tragedy is its essence, and it captures that Grecian quality with keen and cutting clarity. Oldboy will make you feel like shit when it ends; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance will suck out your soul. Here, Park gets to the core of the revenge apparatus, and in so doing drills down to the truth of why good people do bad things: desperation, lack of options, an abundance of unassuaged guilt mixed with spiritual anguish. Where Oldboy pits god against god, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance sets regular men on collision courses with one another. It’s a tale of inevitability. We know that Ryu and Dong-jin must meet, they must clash, and one of them must live while the other must die, but we know that neither of them is evil, and that they’ve both been trapped by fate.
The “musts” make the film’s climax all the more shattering. Unlike Park’s post-2002 efforts, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is stylistically stripped down, absent of his richer inclinations, and by consequence it is more down to Earth. Rather than make the film feel poorer, though, that austerity instead lends its plot greater heft. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hits hard. Among a bevy of bleak and unforgiving films, this one is the bleakest and most unforgiving of all.