What tips you off that you’re obsessed with a director is all in the less glamorous side of film criticism. It’s not the verbose essays or incisive reviews, but the weird hunger you get to watch their new work, how many short films you can scour the internet for once you’ve gobbled up their features, and how relentlessly you badger those around you to join your obsession. You know that scene in Oldboy? The famous one where he charges down a corridor armed with a hammer and bludgeons his way through unlimited goons? That’s us bullying our friends and loved ones to watch Park Chan-wook films. There’s zero difference.
The South Korean auteur made a name for himself with his meditations on revenge and his stylized glimpses at thundering violence, but what elevates his work from so many others is the tenderness that fuels all the depravity. It’s the doomed romances, the wounded vulnerability his characters show, and how much his films play to the senses. They don’t just want you to look at something beautiful, they want you to know what touching it feels like, what the specks of blood and brush of bodies against you would feel. Park has an unmatched eye/nose/ear for the breathless and soul-crushing, something his romance-mystery Decision To Leave takes to new heights.
Here is every Park Chan-wook film, ranked:
N/A: Trio (1997)
All the information as to the plot of Park Chan-wook’s sophomore feature, Saminjo (Trio), is as follows: “A suicidal saxophonist is pushed over the edge after he discovers his wife’s infidelity.” The film, sadly, is nowhere to be found online (legally). In fact, it’s unlikely it was ever translated into a language aside from Korean, or reproduced onto anything apart from VHS. There’s a 49-second clip of a VHS rip on YouTube, with a hilarious comment thread of seven different people asking for the full movie with subtitles, and no answers. There’s a Reddit thread of someone who claims to have a digital copy, and was asking around if anyone could contribute to a subtitle track. I tried to ask my friend to do the same but no dice. What’s more, Park Chan-wook himself is probably responsible for this, as he’s disavowed all of his feature work before Joint Security Area for being embarrassingly amateurish. Doesn’t look like Trio will end up on any comprehensive ranked list any time soon, unless a reviewer in Korea rents a hard copy.
10. The Moon Is the Sun’s Dream (1992)
Park Chan-wook hates his first two films, electing to pronounce Joint Security Area as his actual film debut, and has voiced his desires to erase every copy of his preceding ones. Unfortunately, I am a completionist asshole, and sought them out anyway. The Moon Is the Sun’s Dream is a very low-budget melodrama about a photographer, a gangster and his girlfriend. There’s a lot of wry humor, little interspersions of violence and a tearfully tragic ending. There’s very little information to be found about this film, which is understandable for something that can only be seen in 720p on YouTube, but it’s not as bad a watch as Park die-hards have proclaimed elsewhere; there’s enough clever editing and camera trickery to keep your eyes engaged, and the trite story doesn’t ever feel completely insincere. Still, it’s miles below anything he’s shot afterwards, and it’s clear that, as his filmmaking interests matured, he had little interest revisiting stories that felt as cheap as this.
9. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Right after completing the Vengeance Trilogy, Park Chan-wook needed a break from traumatic violent flare and sought out lighter, gentler material. And so he turned to…a psychiatric hospital. While Park’s second collaboration with the powerhouse screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong turned out to be the most minor of their efforts, it proved another success for Park’s signature blend of grave, difficult topics with an abrasively light tone. Watching it as someone who’s dealt with their fair share of mental illness, it takes a lot to dismiss how much of I’m a Cyborg is dedicated to a series of “quirky,” idiosyncratic dramatizations of severe conditions; it can increasingly feel like these characters are othering mental illness rather than forging empathy with it. That said, Park and Jeong’s treatise on psychology is undoubtedly tied to the Korean culture in which they write, and when the climax comes about, it’s hard to deny the collective powers of these two storytellers. If there’s one thing that Park and Jeong love, it’s an unlikely romance.
8. Stoker (2013)
2013 was a big year for South Korean greats to English-language debuts, with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand, but thankfully Stoker is more similar in quality to the former’s quality rather than the latter’s. A crackling, hypnotic gothic drama that threatens to be off-putting on first watch, this marked Park Chan-wook’s first project he had no hand in writing (working from a script penned by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller?!), but he more than makes up for it with a domestic drama that bears resemblance to A Tale of Two Sisters and pretty much nothing else Hollywood was making at the time. It doesn’t feel as dramatically polished or impactful as his Korean-language work, and you can sort of see every beat in the surrogate father/husband story playing out a scene or two before it comes, but there’s enough really unpleasant turns to keep you marveling from a distance at its strangeness. Plus, thanks to our protagonist’s extrasensory sensitivity, the stylism is cranked up to hypercharged levels; every sound is squeezed to its maximum allowance and the tiny imprinted fragments of images are jaggedly shoved to the forefront of our vision. There’s the Park we know and love!
7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Blunt. Pointless. Devoid of passion. And no, I’m not just talking about my first reviews. This is revenge in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, where attempts to better one’s station or right injustice end in a cacophony of senseless brutality and collateral damage. Park’s film is filled with offbeat, outsider characters, but the whole film is framed and shot so clinically, it’s difficult to muster a whole lot of sympathy for the players involved—despite how horrible a situation they find themselves in, be it bereft of a child or conned out of a kidney. Stylistically, it often feels more like a industrial film about murder than a crime thriller, distancing us from the rich and thorny emotional crises that plague the protagonists of Oldboy or Lady Vengeance. Can we ever truly feel sympathy for those who commit such barbarity? Can there ever be satisfying closure once violence is committed against someone? Sympathy may feel colder than other Park Chan-wook films, but its rebuttal to the glorification of violence in mainstream cinema still grabs you by the throat.
6. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy makes the smart choice most genre homages don’t: The film relegates reference to the soundtrack titles, some of which crop up elsewhere on this very list. It takes more than a few hat tips to Tourneur, Hawks and Ray to make a noir, but Oldboy boasts the lion’s share of noir’s best trappings in its story of long-term revenge and dirty family secrets. The film is probably best revered for a single fight scene, one of only a handful to occur throughout its two-hour running time. Admittedly, that hallway scrap is pretty glorious, but Park boils his protagonist hard, and spoken from beneath star Choi Min-sik’s grizzled mane, the film’s dialogue crackles with beefy, unhinged ennui. Years from now when the next big international neo-noir import arrives stateside, don’t be surprised if you see Oldboy’s moniker on its OST. —A.C.
5. Decision to Leave (2022)
A detective finds himself falling for his murder suspect, who is fingered for killing her husband. If that sounds like a plot ripped straight from an Alfred Hitchcock film, that’s because it’s textbook Park Chan-wook. The Korean director has been taking inspiration from Hitchcock for much of his career, one defined by twisty mysteries and perverse thrillers that the Master of Suspense likely could never have fathomed. Park’s latest is perhaps the director’s most Hitchcockian in the most crucial aspects, though also more subdued compared to his track record. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an overworked detective who is—in true clichéd, noir form—married to his job more than to his actual wife. The latter lives in quiet, foggy Iso while the “youngest detective in the country’s history” works weeks in Busan, where the crime and murder that sustains him runs rampant. The couple tends to talk about how to keep their marriage lively instead of actually acting upon it. Hae-jun’s wife (Lee Jung-hyun) relays helpful facts about the health benefits of having regular sex, suggesting that they commit to “doing it” once a week. Still, Hae-jun spends more time on stake-outs than in his own bed due to insomnia, which plagues him as a symptom of his pile of unresolved cases. Concurrently with another active case, Hae-jun finds himself adding another crime to his growing folder: A mountain-climber who fell tragically to his demise. Though by all appearances an accident (despite the late climber’s proficiency), the mountaineer’s much younger Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), quickly elicits suspicion from Hae-jun and his hot-head partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo). Park introduces the film’s femme fatale in the most unassuming way: Camera on Hae-jun, with her measured voice off-screen as she enters the morgue to identify her deceased husband. Hyper-stylized, surprisingly funny and a little convoluted, at its heart, Decision to Leave is a tragic story about love, trust and, of course, murder. Arguably, Decision to Leave is more of a romance than anything else; the crime/mystery aspect of the narrative is the least interesting part, though one could assume that’s entirely intentional. While not negligible, the crime is more of a conduit through which the real meat of the story, the relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, is catalyzed and slowly evolves. Their romance is dependent upon requited longing and looming, unresolved threat—the kind of threat that fuels Hae-jun’s sleepless life, the kind that he can’t live without. From the string-centric score to the noir archetypes, to the themes of romance, betrayal, obsession and voyeurism, Decision to Leave is Park’s most clear evocation of Hitchcock to date. Because of this, it becomes somewhat evident where the story will go, even when things take a turn. But the familiarity of the crime narrative reads as intentionally superficial, a vehicle for a more unconventional exploration of the standard detective/femme fatale romance which has laid the foundation for Park’s own sumptuous spin. While not Park’s best work, nor a masterpiece, Decision to Leave is an extravagant and hopelessly romantic thriller that weaves past and present into something entirely its own.—Brianna Zigler
4. Joint Security Area (2000)
Park’s popularity at home in South Korea is the singular responsibility of Joint Security Area, his first commercial and critical success following two duds, his debut feature The Moon is … the Sun’s Dream and his sophomore effort, Trio. Obvious surface-level discrepancies between it and his future projects aside, Joint Security Area lays the groundwork for Park’s interests, obsessions and aesthetics, wrapped up in a more straightforwardly tragic package. If the Vengeance trilogy—Oldboy in particular—play like Greek tragedies, Joint Security Area plays like a down-to-earth human tragedy outside the realm of divine providence. That’s the effect of the film’s setting and history. Telling a story of men stationed on opposite sides of the DMZ naturally grounds the plot in reality and Korean history, which is painful in ways Park’s subsequent hits simply cannot aspire to be. Joint Security Area creates space for these men to each approach old hatreds that function as a Korean birthright, to examine them, to realize that the hatreds aren’t theirs but their countries’. They’re victims of systems of power set in place to prevent them from meeting, and in preventing them from meeting those systems snuff out all hope of reunification (or let’s aim lower and just wish for reconciliation instead). Joint Security Area isn’t the most graphic movie in Park’s body of work, but it’s the most soul-crushing, and the most informative of who Park is, or would go on to become. Watching a man endure amateur dentistry or take a screwdriver to the neck is viscerally brutal. Watching the sparks of amity snuffed out in a burst of gunfire, on the other hand, is spiritually brutal, and the worst kind of brutality of all.—Andy Crump
3. Lady Vengeance (2005)
The best entry in the Vengeance Trilogy marked its first female protagonist and Park Chan-wook’s first collaboration with Jeong Seo-kyeong, and there’s no better film to kick off one of the finest writer-director partnerships in modern cinema. Park’s female characters changed drastically for the better from this point; here illustrated by the aggrieved Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), released from prison after a lengthy sentence for a crime she falsely confessed to so she could protect her daughter. It unpicks the emotional burden and aftereffects of vengeance in a measured, almost surgical way, and only in the trilogy’s final chapter do we see a central relationship that doesn’t become corrupted and vile. The final act, where the vengeance is actually carried out, is undoubtedly Park’s finest hour; filled with brutality, tragedy and quiet displays of powerful humanity. It’s a turning point for Park—one that would only lead him to greater glory.
2. Thirst (2009)
Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a devoted priest who’s punished for his devotion. In volunteering to aid with relief efforts for a deadly viral outbreak, Sang-hyun is infected, isolated and then, in a fleeting effort to save his quickly waning life, is given a blood transfusion—after which he comes back to life, mumbling the same prayer that was on his lips right before he passed away. The blood was of course vampiric, an extra step of unluckiness added to the priest’s devolution from devout to doomed, but as blessed as it may seem for him to be alive at all, even the most deep-seated vows of his pure spirit can’t stand strong against the urges of the “growling beast” rearing inside of him. Eventually, Sang-hyun falls for an abused young woman, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), and together they explore what being a vampire really entails, which mostly means clinging to the fringes of civilization, trying not to kill people and having a bunch of messy sex. Bleak but thoughtful, grotesque but hopeful, Park Chan-Wook’s sleekly sad horror fable eventually reveals itself to be a romantic thriller with a love triangle at its core: between a vampire, a woman and their God. —Dom Sinacola
1. The Handmaiden (2016)
There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. But you’re here to read about the sex, aren’t you? It’s in the sex scenes between the two Kims that Park shows the kind of filmmaker he really is. The sex is sexy, the scenes steamy, but in each we find a tenderness that invites us to read them as romance rather than as pornography. We’re not conditioned to look for humanity in pantomimes of a sexually explicit nature, but that’s exactly when The Handmaiden is at its most human. There’s something comforting in that, and in Park’s framing of deviance as embodied by the film’s masculine component. We don’t really need him to spell that out for us, but the message is welcome all the same. —Andy Crump
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.