Director Park Chan-wook's signature style earns him international attention

Director Park Chan-wook [CJ ENM]

On Tuesday, Korean director Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave” (2022) failed to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Non-English Language category during the event held at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California.

Despite not taking home the accolade, Korean and international critics alike called the competition close and commented that the nomination itself was a well-earned opportunity for global spotlight on “Decision to Leave.” The director won the prize for Best Director for the film at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Park is not as well-known globally as fellow Korean director Bong Joon-ho, but he has been a household name in Korea and Asia for decades.

Some of his previous works include “Oldboy” (2003), “The Handmaiden” (2016), “Stoker” (2013) and the Vengeance trilogy. Decades of work have contributed to Park's signature style, as seen in the twists and turns of "Decision to Leave." This noteworthy aspect of the film is a technique seen in almost all of Park's previous works.

Actor Tang Wei in director Park Chan-wook's 2022 film "Decision to Leave" [CJ ENM]

His debut feature film, “The Moon Is... the Sun’s Dream” (1992) and his second film, “Trio” (1997) both tanked at the box office. It wasn't until 2000 that Park first saw success with his film “Joint Security Area,” a story about North and South Korean soldiers who meet at the demilitarized zone between the borders of the two countries.

“Joint Security Area” set new records at the time, becoming the most-watched film ever made in Korea and elevating Park’s status as a director.

From left, actors Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun and Shin Ha-kyun in the 2000 film "Joint Security Area" [CJ ENM]

“Oldboy,” a neo-noir thriller centering on a man who is imprisoned in a room without any explanation for 15 years, is another prime example of Park’s signature style of using a suspenseful tone. There are so many potential spoiler alerts that a detailed description of the film is almost impossible — a testament to how intricate Park’s films can be.

“Oldboy” won the Grand Prix Award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, helped by none other than Quentin Tarantino, who voted for Park’s film and pushed for it to win. Tarantino has been a strong advocate for Korean directors such as Park and Bong over the years.

“Oldboy” was a follow-up to “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), and was in turn followed by “Lady Vengeance” (2005), making up the Vengeance trilogy. The films were not initially planned as a trio, but after their shooting wrapped up, Park decided to group the three together, as all three are based on the pointlessness and emptiness of vengeance and the toll that acts of vengeance can have upon people.

Actor Choi Min-sik in Park Chan-wook's 2003 film "Oldboy" [CJ ENM]

While Park has been making a mark at international competitions with the Vengeance Trilogy and other projects including vampire film "Thirst" (2009) — which won the Prix du Jury at the 2009 Cannes event — and a fantasy-horror film “Night Fishing” (2011) — shot entirely with an iPhone and nominated for the Berlinale Shorts at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, it wasn’t until “Stoker” that he started receiving more international acclaim.

“Stoker,” Park’s first English-language film, is a psychological thriller — no surprise — starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, and tells the story of a dysfunctional family embroiled in drama and mystery.

Actors Nicole Kidman, left, and Mia Wasikowska, right, in Park Chan-wook's 2013 film "Stoker" [SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES]

Park needed an interpreter on the set of the film since he does not speak English fluently, but according to Matthew Goode, Park’s English is very good. In 2012, Park told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, that he took on the director position for the film because he felt that there were many good stories and screenplays in Hollywood and a scope of filmmaking in the U.S. that was hard to imagine doing in Korea.

“Stoker” garnered positive reviews and earned $12.1 million at the box office. It was called “disturbingly good” by Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, and was nominated for the Saturn Awards, Empire Awards and the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Actors Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in "The Handmaiden" (2016) [CJ ENM]

Another highlight of Park's career came with “The Handmaiden,” an adaptation of “Fingersmith,” a historical crime novel by British writer Sarah Waters. The film centers on a handmaiden to a wealthy heiress who plots to steal from the heiress’s fortune but ends up falling in love with her.

“The Handmaiden” has a whopping 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest for any of Park’s films (excluding “Three... Extremes,” a project that he was a writer for). The film was nominated for both the Palme d’Or and Queer Palm at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and saw box office success not only in Korea but also in the U.S. and the U.K.

Many see “The Handmaiden” as a turning point for Park, but experts say that the turning point in the director's career was with “Joint Security Area,” and perhaps even long before that.

“Park has been unraveling his personas in all of his films so far,” said culture critic Kim Hern-sik. “If you look at ‘The Handmaiden,’ it was actually the only one of Park’s films that did not receive an award at a big film festival or event. To say that that film was a turning point for Park would be misleading in that Park has been exploring various themes and ideas for most of his career.”

Kim says that Park’s reputation for dark and suspenseful films may be changing since the director has been touching upon themes such as multiculturalism and genres like drama in recent years.

Actor Lee Young-ae in "Lady Vengeance" (2005) [CJ ENM]

“Talking about whether Park’s films are just ‘spicy’ and ‘dark,’ so to speak, may fail to take into account the larger and more relevant themes that he deals with,” said Kim. “And this also should be the direction that Korean content and movies take in the future — to handle more multicultural and dramatic points.”

After all these masterpieces of filmmaking came “Decision to Leave” — a mesmerizing story of love, drama and redemption. Moving away from just the simple message of vengeance, “Decision to Leave” shows that Park is capable of delivering a deeper meaning through the story of a detective, played by Park Hae-il, who falls in love with a mysterious widow.

Actors Park Hae-il and Tang Wei in "Decision to Leave" (2022) [CJ ENM]

Park’s next project also shows even more potential — if that's even possible. It will be a television adaptation of Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel “The Sympathizer,” a project optioned by A24, the studio known well within the film industry for its compelling and often uniquely distinctive works.

“Park seems to be focusing a lot on Asia these days,” said Kim, commenting on the director’s next career move. “Before, his work was more targeted at European audiences, so it became more hardboiled and centered on revenge, since that was seen as Park’s trademark. But he doesn’t need any more experiments with what he can do, Park has already proven how far his films can go. Now, he will attempt to reach a wider audience through his films by making dramas that can resonate with everyone.”

Park previously said in the aforementioned interview with the JoongAng Ilbo that while it may be “natural” for people to have certain expectations from his films, he is not a violent or angry person in general and that revenge as a theme for him has come from personal interests.

Actors Tang Wei and Park Hae-il in "Decision to Leave" (2022) [CJ ENM]

“I think that revenge, which is usually an element in my films, is essential for various kinds of films, whether they be thrillers or mysteries,” said Park. He also commented on the strength of Korean films. “Korean films aren’t telling the same old stories,” said Park. “Korean films keep audiences from dozing off because they are true to the characteristics of each genre.”

What Park will bring to the next genre and story he tackles is being watched closely, now by audiences not just in Korea and Asia, but across the globe.