Park Chan-wook
– Six of the Best


Twenty years ago marked the arrival of the first of the visceral Vengeance Trilogy. Now, with the streaming release of his latest film, Decision to Leave, we take a look at six of the best from South Korean director Park Chan-wook…

When Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite picked up the Oscars for best picture and best director at 2020’s academy awards, we had to spare a thought for his compatriot, Park Chan-wook, whose films have done more than anyone to put contemporary Korean cinema on the map. While cheering Parasite’s success, we also wondered: when is it going to be PCW’s turn? But with Decision to Leave winning Park Best Director at Cannes earlier this year, and also having been selected as the South Korean entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards, there is much to celebrate. Marking the arrival of Decision to Leave on streaming platform Mubi, then, here are six of the best Park Chan-wook films for you to indulge in.

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, 2002

A tale of platonic sibling love, a kidnap plot gone awry, and tragedy, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance was a cause for consternation for some western critics and audiences on its release. As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw noted in his review at the time: “Many festivalgoers at Berlin, where I saw it first, were baffled and repulsed by this extreme cinema.” In retrospect, however, the first act of PCW’s now celebrated Vengeance trilogy put the director on the map outside of South Korea. Even more: it suggested to many – who have since been proved correct – that his was a burgeoning, soon to be cherished, talent, with a flair for more than just violence.

Oldboy, 2003

Among the more remarkable films of Park Chan-wook, which is saying a lot, is Oldboy. Here, for reasons unknown, Oh Dae-su (played with impressive commitment by Choi Min-Sik) is kidnapped. As it turns out, being kept in solitary confinement without clear cause can seriously focus the mind. Add into the mix subsequently learning of the death of your beloved wife, and you have to wonder about the motivations – and, frankly, sanity – of Dae-su’s captors. Have they made a calamitous mistake? The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes, as, on his release 15 years later, our bewildered protagonist sets about unravelling the mystery and taking back more, much more, than a pound of flesh.

Lady Vengeance by Park Chan-Wook, 2005, MUBI

Lady Vengeance, 2005

Wrapping up the trilogy of obsession, revenge and occasional redemption with a flourish is Lady Vengeance (vaguely confusingly released in some regions as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). As the title suggests, this third film in the series finds a woman in the central role. We learn that she has served a prison sentence for the kidnap and subsequent murder of a child. As intricate as its predecessors, Lady Vengeance reveals its closely guarded secrets in piecemeal fashion. The end, when it comes, is a match for anything Mr Vengeance, or even Oldboy, could throw at us.

The Thirst, 2009

Is there anything Park Chan-wook can’t do? Following the Vengeance Trilogy and unexpected outliers such as I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, he turned his attention to the vampire. Very loosely based on an 1867 novel by Émile Zola (Thérèse Raquin), in Thirst, PCW applies genre conventions to his fascination with human relationships; in particular, the breaking of taboos. Here, Sang-hyun’s Catholic priest – who volunteers at a hospital, and is turned into a vampire following an experimental procedure gone wrong – falls for childhood friend Kang-woo’s wife. Thus ensues an exquisitely taught melodrama wrapped up in vampire lore. It won the director the Jury Prize at Cannes.


Stoker, 2013

The fabulously and evocatively titled Stoker was PCW’s first foray into Hollywood. One of my favourites of any film made so far this century, it casts more than a glance in Hitchcock’s direction, but especially 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. Each of these films has a cat among the pigeons family member named Charlie. A brooding predator, Charlie’s recent arrival brings to the surface long-simmering resentments. “India, who are you? You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?” asks the displaced, wounded matriarch, Evelyn Stoker (convincingly played by Nicole Kidman) of her daughter. Its director has called it a gothic fairytale, whose message, if it has one, would be: “in knowing yourself, you can liberate yourself.”

The Handmaiden, 2016

Adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is set in a 1930s Korea still under Japanese colonial rule. In the simplest terms, it charts a conman’s plot to defraud an heiress. But this 2016 psychological, erotically charged thriller, is nothing if not complex. Never knowingly left without another twist up its silken sleeve, it is full of duplicity. Heavy with sexual intrigue, it is both a brutal and delicious watch. Winning a BAFTA for best Film not in the English Language, for many it is the high water mark of the director so far.

Mike Pinnington

Decision to Leave is streaming on Mubi now as part of Sympathy for the Devil: The Films of Park Chan-wook 

Images: The Handmaiden; Lady Vengeance; Stoker; home page image, Decision to Leave

Posted on 09/12/2022 by thedoublenegative