It says much for the wild singularity of director Park Chan-wook’s output that his latest feature, “The Handmaiden,” could be described as one of his most mainstream works to date. On the one hand, it’s a lushly mounted period piece adapted from a Booker-shortlisted bestseller — the definition of a prestige project. On the other, it’s been one of the biggest eyebrow-raisers on this year’s festival circuit: Park has turned Sarah Waters’ feminist Victorian-era romance into a Korean kinkfest of delirious proportions, its complex noir plotting spiked with explicit lesbian love scenes and richly complicated by Asian cross-cultural politics.
It’s a makeover typical of a career conducted entirely on the director’s own terms, and not unprecedented in his filmography, either: in 2009, Park earned a Cannes jury prize for liberally adapting Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin” into “Thirst,” an erotically charged contemporary vampire tale with Catholic overtones.
When the films spring wholly from his own imagination, meanwhile, all bets are off. Cinema’s extensive library of revenge-based storytelling had never before seen the likes of his so-called Vengeance Trilogy: while not narratively connected, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” collectively examined and questioned the morality and aesthetic of their violent subgenre with a florid, visceral perspective that has been much imitated since — not least by his American peers. Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 by a reverential Quentin Tarantino, “Oldboy” has subsequently been remade by Spike Lee; suffice to say it was a less fluid translation than Park’s own inventively adapted works.
After all, by the time Lee’s misconceived attempt hit screens, Park had already proved that he could bring his sensibility to Hollywood on his own. Premiering at Sundance in 2013, his first English-language feature, “Stoker,” was a delicious neo-Gothic nightmare set in picket-fence America, fusing elements of Hitchcock (whose “Vertigo” the director has cited as a formative inspiration in his filmmaking career) and Poe with his own highly refined taste for blood. Responses were mixed, but Park will be lured back to the U.S. He is attached to direct sci-fi thriller “Second Born,” a futuristic body-swap tale from a screenplay by David Jagernauth — a more official dive into genre terrain the helmer whimsically subverted in 2006’s Berlin-garlanded, classification-resistant psycho-comedy “I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK.”
Now ten features (plus a number of award-winning shorts) into his career, the 53-year-old Seoul native (and former film critic) has an imprint that remains entirely identifiable however waywardly he crosses genres and borders. The Lumière festival’s retrospective covers only half his oeuvre, but it’s a robust selection all the same. The three films of the Vengeance Trilogy are there in all their grisly glory, as of course is “The Handmaiden,” while the program is rounded out by the 2000 mystery “Joint Security Area”: massively popular and acclaimed on home turf, this military-based thriller — its narrative tensely straddling the border between North and South Korea — remains less familiar to western audiences. 24 years on from his debut, the cinema of Park Chan-wook still offers plenty of scope for discovery and reappraisal.