LONDON — When “Oldboy” alternately appalled and delighted critics at Cannes last year, eventually winning the Grand Prix, South Korean helmer Park Chan-wook became the fest’s latest “overnight” sensation, with even jury topper Quentin Tarantino himself declaring the pic his personal favorite.
For those who weren’t Korean film mavens or Asian pic specialists or hardcore festgoers, “Oldboy” — a labyrinthine yarn centering on a man kidnapped and held prisoner in a hotel room for 15 years — was their first exposure to Park’s intense, violent, high-concept universe.
As people scurried to catch up on the previous seg (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”) in what has been dubbed his revenge trilogy, even Hollywood came calling. The concluding leg, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” is one of the most anticipated Asian movies of this year.
But like many others coined as overnight sensations, Park has actually honed his chops over more than a decade. Born in 1963, he formed a film club at Seoul’s tony, Jesuit-run Sogang University, where he majored in philosophy. Beneath the highly cinematic, genre patina of “Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy,” there are strong moral/philosophical underpinnings that give the movies so much of their disturbing power.
Dabbling as a film critic for a bit — then penning his 1984 essay “The Discreet Charm of Watching Film” — Park entered the industry as an assistant director. He finally made his first pic in 1992, Busan-set gangster movie “The Moon Is … the Sun’s Dream,” about two half-brothers leading very different lives.
But it was five years before his second feature, “Trio,” was released. Centered on three “outsider” characters — a sax player, a gangster and a bereaved mother — who team up and break society’s accepted rules, “Trio” has a black, anarchic sense of humor, much in the style of French helmer Bertrand Blier’s movies. In its cinematic flourishes, it also prefigures the first two revenge trilogy pics.
Still, Park dislikes looking back on those early efforts. “Rather than their thematic content,” says the director, caught during the midst of wrapping “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” “I just remember how hard I found it to handle the actors. Those two films were very embarrassing experiences, though you could say they had similar characters to the movies that followed them. And as low-budget movies, they were good experiences in keeping to budgets and schedule.”
That experience paid dividends on the much larger-budgeted “Joint Security Area,” with which Park finally exploded on the burgeoning local film scene. The dramatically powerful DMZ whodunit, released in September 2000, racked up nearly $28 million in box office revenue in Korea alone, just beating the previous record set by Kang Je-gyu’s 1999 groundbreaking spy thriller “Shiri.” It’s still by far Park’s biggest B.O. success.
Where “Shiri” found the country’s North-South split simply good material for an actioner, Park’s “JSA” took a blackly ironic view of the DMZ’s Cold War-like paranoia and theatrics. For the first time in South Korean cinema, North Koreans were portrayed as normal, thinking people.
” ‘JSA’ was a very good time for me, working with a central ensemble of just four actors and one actress,” Park recalls.
However, Park still remained largely an unknown quantity outside East Asia. A slot in the 2001 Berlin fest’s competition didn’t channge that, with the pic viewed as too commercial by assembled crix. And the international profile of his next movie, “Mr. Vengeance,” was effectively delayed by almost a year when Cannes rejected it (after Berlin had shown interest) in 2002. The film finally showed at San Sebastian that fall, and Park’s rep slowly built from there.
After the dark shenanigans of the first two segs of his vengeance trilogy, Park promises more humor in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” the tale of a woman, played by “JSA’s” Lee Yong-ae, who’s been in prison for 13 years. “Of the three, it’s the least direct in its portrayal of violence,” he adds.
“Lady,” which finally wrapped April 28, has a tentative local opening date of late July and is sure to figure in on the major fall fest scene.
So is Park “revenged” out?
“I’m not thinking of any more vengeance-themed films for a while,” he says. “Actually, my next project is a low-budget digital feature.”