Tag Archives: Chan-wook Park

CAPSULE: STOKER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Matthew Goode,

PLOT: A girl’s father dies on her 18th birthday; the uncle she never knew she had shows up soon thereafter and installs himself in the isolated house she lives in with her lonely mother.

Still from Stoker (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although Chan-wook Park fans should find enough perversion, violence and sublime cinematography to keep themselves engaged in it.

COMMENTS: From the long-lost uncle right out of Shadow of a Doubt to a subversive quotation to Psycho‘s shower scene, Stoker is Chan-wook Park’s Hitchcock tribute movie. But where Hitch was a master of plotting as well as suspense, Park substitutes high stylization and on-the-nose perversity for carefully shaded storytelling. The events of Stoker are highly implausible, and the characters act like dancers in a psychosexual ballet rather than three people mourning the loss of a beloved breadwinner. The triangular character structure draws you in, presenting sets of relations—mother/daughter, uncle/niece, and widow/brother-in-law—which shift throughout the tale. Allies will become enemies, buried family secrets will be uncovered, and Uncle Charlie, naturally, is not what he seems. Oh, and blood will flow when longings grow unchecked. Stoker unavoidably flirts with the Electra complex, as mother and daughter compete for the attentions of the surrogate father figure, the new Man of the house. Mysterious Uncle Charlie, whose very existence was unknown until he showed up at his brother’s funeral, is a figure of fear and desire to young India. The way he tries to win the 18-year old’s allegiance by waiting for her in his convertible parked next to the school bus would creep out Chris Hansen, and the way newly widowed and prematurely lonely mom Evelyn courts Uncle’s attention would boil Hamlet’s blood. There are a lot of naughty, nasty possibilities in a tale that teases a potential transformation into a taboo love triangle, but it has less transgressive sting because nothing onscreen bears much relationship to reality. Characters show up as if by magic when the script calls for it, ominous music plays for no obvious reason, and no one’s reactions are very believable. (You’ve got to call the police when you find that first body, folks!) The way India’s feelings for Charlie flow from disdain to prurient interest and back again, in particular, makes little outward sense; the vacillation only reflects her conflicted attitudes about sex and upcoming adulthood. Unannounced dream sequences further distance us from reality. A near-rape plays twice; the second time through, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be a continuation of the previous scene, or a new version re-imagined as a sexual revenge fantasy. All of this is presented neither with a repressed Freudian subtlety (the way a Hitchcock would have handled it) or with a balls-to-the-wall operatic insanity (the way we might have expected a Chan-wook Park to treat such material). Stoker instead exists in the netherworld between the real and the surreal, the realm of melodrama. It’s like a too-logical dream that’s uncomfortable precisely because it’s not bizarre enough to meet our expectations. And although the script proffers the twists we’d expect in a thriller—secrets are revealed fast and furious in the third act—in the end, much of the plotting just seems lazy, particularly in a senseless, character-arc-erasing final scene that caps things off with a meaningless shock. On the plus side, the slow-paced Gothic tenor of the drama is refreshingly different from typical Hollywood “realism,” and Park grants us a couple of wonderful moments—a breathy erotic piano duet (of a Philip Glass composition made expressly for this movie) and a striking shot where Nicole Kidman’s hair transforms into a field of grain. In the end, Stoker is lurid, loopy, and occasionally lovely, no masterpiece but a passable guilty pleasure.

Korean director Park had to work with a translator on the set, and so the actors may have been largely left to direct themselves. This may be why some of the performances seem subdued, while Park’s camera is as vibrant as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder…”–Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THIRST [BAKJWI] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim

PLOT: A priest becomes a vampire after he receives a blood transfusion during an experimental treatment to find a cure for a deadly virus; after his transformation he becomes erotically obsessed with a young woman who lives as a virtual slave to the family that adopted her.

Still from Thirst [Bakwjwi] (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  All of Park’s films at least flirt with weirdness, and Thirst is no exception. In a way, however, this vampire drama is the Korean fantasist’s most conventional effort. Aside from a disorienting dream sequence intercut into a bout of lovemaking, Park adds only a few short surrealistic bursts here and there, instead sticking surprisingly close to the vampire formula.

COMMENTS: Like all Chan-wook Park films, Thirst is technically excellent: the cinematography, musical accents, and nuanced performances are all top-notch. The plot, while rambling and overlong, ties up loose ends neatly by the end. Many of the individual scenes are nearly perfect, too; the long and violent sequence where a furious Sang-hyeon forcibly converts Tae-joo into a vampire in front of her paralyzed adoptive mother is intense and beyond criticism. Hae-sook Kim’s Lady Ra has a particularly excellent turn that catches fire once her character becomes nearly comatose, and Song and Kim’s love scenes sizzle with guilt-ridden eroticism. Park even scales back the distracting, heavily stylized directorial flourishes (such as the dotted line coming off the hammer in Oldboy) that seem to pop up in his every effort just because the director thinks they look cool; the imagery in Thrist flows naturally, like uncoagulated blood.

With all of the above going for it, what I found most shocking about Thirst is how little spark or originality it emanates. We’ve seen the tragic reluctant vampire since 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, and thirst for blood has always been a metaphor for lust (in the 1970s exploitation filmmakers became quite explicit with the theme in flicks like Lust for a Vampire and Vampyres). There’s no real spin on the vampire legend to be found here. A few traditional nemeses—garlic and crucifixes—have been jettisoned, but the vampire’s psychological essence—predation and isolation—remains intact. Making the bloodsucking protagonist a priest, while adding the superficial appearance of depth, doesn’t pay off in any profound poetic or philosophical way.  If there’s a spiritual dilemma to be found here, it’s of the mostobvious sort, as the fallen Father struggles to reconcile his vow to serve his suffering flock with his need to drink their blood and avoid sunlight.

The film’s supposed organizing principle, the vampiric curse, gives way to a noirish supernatural love triangle; as it turns out, it’s that old snake in the garden, sex, that’s the root of all evil, not nocturnal bloodsucking. The shift from the struggle to create a personal system of ethical vampirism to a story about falling for a femme fatale means film looses its thematic focus, if not its drama, about halfway through. Thirst is well worth the watch, but frankly, it left me thirsty for more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If, like me, you believe Thirst can’t possibly get any weirder, then you’re in for a comically surreal ride as Park’s genre mash careens of the beaten logical path into that magic land that seems to exist only in the mind of Korean filmmakers.”–Jacob Powell, The Lumiere Reader (contemporaneous)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)

Must See

DIRECTED BY

FEATURINGMin-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

PLOT:  A drunk Dae-su Oh is seized off the streets and imprisoned for years in a private apartment without any explanation; when he is just as mysteriously released, his former captor toys with him, giving him clues to help Dae-su track him down and, more importantly, discover why he was imprisoned in the first place.

Still from Oldboy (2003)


WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Oldboy is certainly extreme, certainly stylized, certainly cultish, but it may be a stretch to call it “weird.” What gives it some weird cred is the high implausibility of the fabulous plot, which is more concerned with intriguing us through its psychological truth than its believability. Watching Oldboy leads to the same punched-in-the-psychic-gut feeling as the best weird movies do. It’s that effect that keeps it on the borderline.

COMMENTS: Oldboy spins its improbable yarn with stylized realism. There are a few weirdish digressions: when a stir-crazy Dae-su hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin (an ant also briefly appears to Mi-do in a mirror image phantasm); a scene where, instead of showing the avenger graphically bashing in his adversary’s head, the director freezes frame and draws a dotted line on the screen from Dae-su’s claw hammer to the villain’s noggin; and a brilliantly impossible kung fu battle in a narrow corridor that seems imported from a completely different movie. Part of what makes this Chan-wook’s most successful work is that neither these cinematic stylistic touches, nor the improbably convoluted plot, cause our brows to permanently freeze in a skeptical furrow, or totally overwhelm the sense that this fantastic story could have happened essentially the way he tells it. There are maybe a dozen points in the film where if Dae-su chooses to follow path X rather than path Y, the entire plot collapses; there are another half-dozen plot contrivances that could only be accomplished by a cartoon supervillain with unlimited resources. But our logical objections never rise to the fore while we’re watching the film. Oldboy seems “real” because the actors are able to convey an emotional realism, because Chan-wook creates legitimate suspense that makes us want to believe so we’re fully invested when we discover what happens next, and because, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the story rings psychologically true. On one level, Oldboy is a simple and elegant dramatization of the self-annihilating power of revenge, inflicted with unflinching emotional brutality on the poor hero. What gives the film extra intensity is that we sense it’s not the villain, but the dread hand of Fate manipulating and battering Dae-su. The force that torments him is too relentless and omnipotent to be human, to cruel and senseless to be karma.

Every successful foreign film is the subject of a Hollywood remake rumor, and Oldboy is no exception. What is just as bizarre as Oldboy‘s plot contrivances are the names linked to the remake (actually an adaptation of the same source material, to avoid quibbles): Steven Speilberg and Will Smith. If even Hollywood’s most daring talent would inevitably chicken out and make Oldboy pointless by sanitizing its unflinching psychic brutality, what will these two squeaky-clean icons of normality do to it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd… It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as ‘Oldboy’ and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporary)

CAPSULE: SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE [CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI] (2005)

AKA Lady Vengeance

threestar

DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park

FEATURING: Yeong-ae, Min-sik Choi

PLOT: Beautiful Geum-ja goes to prison for thirteen years for the kidnapping and murder

Still from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

of a five-year old boy, a crime she didn’t commit, and on release commences an intricate and shocking plan of revenge on the true culprit.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With its series of flashbacks and dream-sequences coupled with Park’s trademark gratuitous style, Lady Vengeance just sneaks across the line separating “weird” from “arty”. There’s nothing about the story of Geum-ja’s revenge, however, that suggests that it’s best told in a weird way, and after a confusing first half, the conclusion unspools in a bloody but mostly straightforward thread.  The result is a film that’s trapped in a netherworld between the hyper-weird and the conventional; it could have been more successful if it had put its whole heart into one strategy or the other. The more satisfying Oldboy is a better choice to represent Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” on the list of 366.

COMMENTS: After an absolutely gorgeous black, white and red credits sequence involving a living tattoo of a rose vine and blooming pools of blood, the first half of Lady Vengeance flings the viewer back and forth between the present and flashbacks involving a multitude of characters from a women’s prison, sprinkling in a few dream/fantasy sequences on the way.  The result makes a confusion of the story details, although the big picture is clear. It feels as if the audience is being jerked around in the early reels; there’s no good reason for the fractured narrative, and after all the groundwork laying out the large cast of characters who figure in the scheme to capture the villain, the actual details of the plan turn out not to matter much.  Lady Vengeance finally shines in the grisly, intense finale, an unflinching look into the dark depths of violence.  It follows this up with a brief beautiful scene of frustrated redemption before limping to an unsatisfying denouement with a mysterious final image that doesn’t really work, leaving audiences simply puzzled rather than intrigued.  Along the way Park shoehorns in a curious touch whenever an idea pops into his head, such as a wipe transitioning from the present to a flashback via an closing door, a radiating halo around his angel of vengeance, or a character’s inner monologue written in the clouds. Lady Vengeance ends up a jumbled bag of good and bad ideas, isolated beautiful moments and frustrating experiments.

Park has all the elements of a great director: an impressive visual sense, an ability to ferret out the heart of a character and a story, and an interesting and audacious selection of topics.  His well-recognized flaw is that he falls in love with style for its own sake, rather than using style in the service of his story.  Chan-wook is consistently interesting and make worthwhile films, but (with the possible exception of Oldboy) he has yet to hit one out of the Park.  When he does, watch out!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A kind of brilliantly realized perplexity is the predominant tone, and when Park sets these complex emotional nuances before some of the most riotously colorful and splashily off-kilter backgrounds (both literal and figural) ever witnessed, the resulting schism is akin to watching a pop-art paintball skirmish in the world’s most baroque ossuary.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Su-jeong Lim, Rain

PLOT: Young-goon, a young woman who believes herself to be a cyborg, is institutionalized after a gruesome and nearly fatal attempt to recharge her batteries.  Among the characters she meets in the mental hospital is Il-soon, a kleptomaniac who steals not only small items, but character traits from the other patients.  Young-goon enlists Il-soon’s aid to help her discover and complete her purpose as a cyborg, while he finds himself coming to care about her—and seeks to find a solution to her troubles that will remain true to her delusion.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

BACKGROUND:

  • I’m a Cyborg was director Chan-wook Park’s first film after completing his popular and ultra-violent “Vengeance Trilogy” [Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2004)].   It was the #1 film in Korea in it’s opening week, but tanked quickly thereafter and ultimately became a box-office disappointment.
  • The idea for the movie came to Park after he had a dream about “bullets coming out of a girl’s body.”
  • The mail lead, Jeong Ji-Hoon, is a top Korean pop music star who records under the name “Rain.”  He makes his movie acting debut in Cyborg.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The audience-pleasing image is Young-goon sprouting jets from her ratty sneakers so she can elevate to kiss Il-soon.  The most enduring image, however, is the vision of Young-goon as a combat cyborg, with bullets shooting from her fingertips and spent shell casings ejecting from her open mouth.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The main characters—a woman who self-destructs

Trailer for I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK

because she believes herself to be a robot, and a kleptomaniac with a fondness for bunny rabbit masks—would, at the very least, qualify as quirky.  Add elaborate hallucinatory sequences, including a massacre of the hospital doctors set to the rhythm of a gentle chamber waltz, and a flight to the Swiss Alps in the grasp of a giant ladybug accompanied by yodeling, and the movie becomes fantastic.  But what makes it weird is that the director takes the principals’ delusions at emotional face value, never allowing reality to bully and overcome his madmen’s subjective worlds.

COMMENTS:  We can easily imagine the 2009 Hollywood remake of Saibogujiman Continue reading 6. I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OK [SAIBOGUJIMAN KWENCHANA] (2006)