By ELLSWORTH BENCHWOOD
In 2013, three young South Korean directors released their first English language movies: Park Chan-wook (“Stoker”), Kim Jee-woon (“The Last Stand”) and Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”).
In these movies, the directors work with material that differs wildly from what they worked with in making Korean-language movies in the early-to-mid 2000’s. Those movies got the attention of critics around the world, and of big names in the American moviemaking community like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, not only because of the directors’ technical prowess, but also their feel for weaving a story with disparate tones.
Park, Kim and Bong will be directors to watch – here is a quick look at their 2013 English-language debuts, as well as some of their significant pre-2013 Korean language work.
With “Stoker” (2013), Park worked with a script written by Wentworth Miller, who stars in the TV drama “Prison Break” (umm, okay). The script bounced around for a few years before Park found it and saw something he liked.
“Stoker” is the surname of the family in this gothic Hitchcock-y story about a teenage girl (played by Mia Wasikowska) who lives with her recently-widowed mother (played by Nicole Kidman) in a large country estate. Her handsome and mysterious world-traveling paternal uncle (played by Matthew Goode) arrives for the funeral, and things get weird in a hurry.
To say there’s a twist that shouldn’t be spoiled does a disservice to the movie’s strength, what’s most enjoyable about it, which is the tension and emotion bubbling beneath the surface of the twisted family relationships it depicts. Better to enjoy the ride of letting the movie create a mood of creepiness than worry about not knowing who will turn out to be the monster.
Ten years earlier, Park blew moviegoers’ minds with a different kind of plot twist (more of a plot ACL tear) in the audacious “Oldboy” (2003), which is based on a Japanese magna series. In it, sad-eyed Choi Min-sik plays a man who has a few too many drinks one night and wakes up in an apartment that isn’t his. He soon discovers that the “apartment” is quite literally a decently furnished jail cell, with a bathroom, television set and a slot through which he is given daily servings of dumplings… for fifteen years, without any indication as to who imprisoned him or why.
After he’s released without explanation, one of his first acts is to go to a sushi restaurant and devour a live octopus (no CGI), which at first might seem like a good way to blow off steam or feel “alive” or something, but is later revealed to be not so random. He is befriended by a young worker in the restaurant who looks vaguely familiar, and he embarks on his mission to find out who took the previous fifteen years of his life from him.
Revenge is a theme often explored in South Korean cinema (“Oldboy” is the 2nd in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy”), but it’s never been explored anywhere quite like this, in which the very nature of revenge is examined. The octopus, the restaurant and the rest of the journey are revealed to be part of a monstrous orchestration resulting directly from a barely remembered or even perceived sin committed back in high school, for which the only possible outcome is a deeply personal, unimaginably horrific atonement. The octopus-eating is a mere disgusting appetizer for the shocks “Oldboy” delivers, never gratuitously, but seemingly out of grim obligation.
Choi’s performance was rightly acclaimed, as was the movie, which won the 2004 Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, bestowed by a jury of which big fan Quentin Tarantino was president. Not surprisingly, Park stayed busy, finishing the trilogy with “Lady Vengeance” (also with Choi) in 2005, and directing two more successful Korean-language movies before “Stoker” in 2013. In 2016 Park floored critics with a bizarre-psycho con-artist romance movie, “The Handmaiden” and from the looks of it he could go just about anywhere from there.