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The Park Chan-wook Syllabus

AMC’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ is just the latest impressive work by the Korean director, who has been exploring themes of sex, vengeance, and violence for years

A black-and-white image of Park Chan-wook surrounded by stills from his films Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2018, it’s no longer surprising to see auteurs transition to the small screen. Television is an increasingly inviting medium that promises plenty of A-list actors, creative leeway, and significant resources for the right projects. (After all, this is a time when you can get Reese Witherspoon to chuck an ice cream cone at three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep while filming the second season of what was supposed to be a seven-episode HBO miniseries. The TV strictures have no limits!) Even so, of the acclaimed filmmakers one would pick to adapt the twisty, byzantine John Le Carré spy novel The Little Drummer Girl, the selection of Korean visionary Park Chan-wook warrants some surprise. Imagine pairing Quentin Tarantino with … well, any relatively low-key subject matter.

Park himself is often likened to Tarantino—who considers himself a big fan of his fellow director—but the broad comparison doesn’t do enough to capture Park’s entire body of work. Sure, his films are frequently regarded for their visceral, shocking, and stylish bouts of violence, but those are just naturally the most attention-grabbing moments, the ones begging to be excerpted in buzzy YouTube compilations. Park’s films are noteworthy for more than just violence, from the visual compositions (prior to his big break as a director, Park wanted to be an art critic) to the dense and subversive narratives that keep you on the edge.

For those currently enrapt by AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl but unfamiliar with Park’s broader filmography, Ringer contributor Manuela Lazic and I have created the Park Chan-wook Syllabus: a guide to the auteur’s essential and most influential work—from his ascension in Korean cinema with the so-called Vengeance trilogy to his English-language productions—and most established tropes. (Minor spoilers for several Park movies ahead.) —Miles Surrey

The Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance

Manuela Lazic: Of course it was Tarantino who handed out an award at Cannes for a movie where a guy takes out a hallway of enemies with a claw hammer. The surprise Grand Prix for Park’s Oldboy in 2004 put him on the global radar of both art and action film lovers, piquing curiosity about his past work. After Oldboy was released, Park’s previous film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was picked up in the U.S., while its follow-up, Lady Vengeance, emerged two years later. Taken together, these three violent, stylized thrillers were coined Park’s Vengeance trilogy—movies connected not by plots or characters but the very Tarantinolike theme of heroic revenge.

It’s difficult to decide toward whom the title of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance asks us to be generous. The easy answer would be Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf young man who, recently laid off and in desperate need of funds to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant, kidnaps a young girl and asks for a ransom from her father. But Park asks us also to be kind toward the girl’s dad, Dong-jin (frequent Park collaborator and unforgettable face Song Kang-ho), who searches for his daughter’s killer. If this sounds like your typical melodramatic revenge plot, it’s only because I don’t wish to spoil the many accidents, chance encounters, and absurd situations that the characters find themselves in as they try to defend their relatives; suffice it to say, the movie is mad and wonderful. For what also makes Park’s idea of retaliation, in the first installment and throughout his trilogy, more than a playful and ludicrous bloodbath is its emotional source: the many regrets his protagonists have toward their loved ones and their desire to pay for having failed to protect them.

As for Oldboy, however exhilarating its inmate turned killing machine may be, it is essentially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with guns and live octopus degustation. After Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) seemingly spends 15 years in prison for having apparently killed his wife, he leaves buffed up and ready to hurt whomever framed him for murder—and to find his daughter, now all grown up. What unfolds amid the series of astonishingly executed fight sequences is a journey through Dae-su’s own memory, triggered by his encounter with the outside world and the gradual revelations divulged by Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), the man who imprisoned him. Dae-su’s remembrances—like Jim Carrey’s in Michel Gondry’s bizarre romance—are too painful to him: They turn him into the prime culprit in his and his family’s demise, and the sinister mental mechanism of their repression comes to seem like an act of mercy. Once again, it is hard not to have sympathy for these vengeful, horrific characters—Dae-su, the regular man who grief turned into a beast, but also Woo-jin, whose mistakes don’t justify the pain he suffered or caused.

Like the antiheroes of Sympathy and Oldboy, Lady Vengeance herself is looking for redemption in all the wrong places—first in the arms of a teacher and kidnapper, then, years later, in the sport of torturing and killing him. Like those men—and much like Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl—she started off as an “ordinary girl”; the terrible choices she made in adolescence that led to her incarceration are compelling and believable because they stemmed from her sense of guilt. Park here makes the possibility of redemption more urgent and heartbreaking than ever: If upon her release, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) first wants solely to avenge herself (like Dae-su in Oldboy), she soon learns that her own youthful sacrifice in search for peace of mind led to the deaths of several children under the knife of her high school teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik). An astonishingly harrowing scene has a group of parents sit in an abandoned classroom to watch the snuff films that Geum-ja found of Mr. Baek torturing their long-disappeared children; then, one parent after the other goes to the nearby room where Mr. Baek is tied up to torture him to death. Lady Vengeance is Park at his best, demonstrating with incredible style, brutality and efficiency how vengeance can change the most conventional of people into murderers, but also, and more poignantly still, that retribution is rarely selfish, nor is it satisfactory. Guilt, unlike blood, doesn’t wash away.

Park’s Stylized Violence

Surrey: Park’s films are a lot more than the sum of their excessively violent parts, but he is one of the best directors at capturing the visceral horror of someone—or some part of someone’s body—snapping. The poster child of Park’s violent streak is the hallway fight in Oldboy, a continuous take that’s seen many imitators, most notably the Netflix series Daredevil and its eponymous hero’s propensity to fight nameless goons in hallways and labyrinthine prison corridors (sometimes under the guise of a oner, too). But what makes these moments in Park’s films so wrenching—especially in contrast with a TV series about a masked dude in Hell’s Kitchen who beats up people—is the relationship between the shocking bouts of violence and the characters themselves.

Within the aforementioned bloodletting scene in Lady Vengeance, there’s a great micro-moment. The characters are all waiting—ponchos, for the blood, and weapons in hand—as one man politely inquires to another man holding only a stick as to whether he’d like to use his knife after he’s finished. “Well …” the other man responds, clicking the head of a giant ax onto the stick. “I think I’ll be OK.”

You can’t help but laugh—at the polite nature of an otherwise twisted inquiry and the fact that people are lining up to torture a child murderer like they’re at the DMV. Park’s propensity to mine moments like this—in which he combines the mundane with the spectacularly violent and comments on the depths to which normal people can sink if the circumstances demand—has resonated because of the way he focuses on the serious psychological toll the violence has on his characters. It’s never gratuitous; there’s always an underlying purpose.

Stoker

Surrey: Park has repeatedly discussed in interviews his appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock, and how Vertigo was what inspired him to become a filmmaker. As such, Stoker didn’t just serve as Park’s English-language debut in 2013, but also as homage to Hitchcock, taking the initial conceit of Shadow of a Doubt and putting a perverse Parkian spin on it.

Like Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker focuses on the dynamic between a mysterious uncle and his niece—but whereas Shadow of a Doubt introduces the uncle as the disrupting force in an otherwise placid household, Stoker’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives right after the family patriarch tragically dies in a car accident. Charlie’s presence, and his increasingly intimate relationship with the widowed Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), leaves 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska) in a state of confusion and agitation as she uncovers important revelations about the family—and herself.

There is a sinister undercurrent throughout Stoker, which echoes Shadow of a Doubt’s incestual sparks between Uncle Charlie and his niece (also named Charlie!). In Stoker, Charlie and India’s mutual attraction is much more over. Observe, the most uncomfortably erotic piano lesson … ever?

Stoker is a delightfully twisted watch—particularly for fans of The Crown who already appreciate Matthew Goode’s sex appeal and intensely expressive eyes—but the film’s finest trick is how it paints India’s journey of self-discovery. Instead of coming across as a stereotypical victim, as the niece does in Hitchcock’s movie, Stoker’s India opens something new within herself and gains agency. Just watch this scene between India and a high school bro named (incredibly) Whip Taylor—played by Young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich.

Thirst

Lazic: Considering his predilection for the murky topics of vengeance, regret, and redemption, it isn’t so surprising that Park Chan-wook would adapt Émile Zola’s 1868 novel Thérèse Raquin, the story of a love affair tainted by mutual bitterness when it turns out that killing someone, even for love, is a hard thing to live with. What is more difficult to explain away, however, is why Park, with his frequent screenwriting collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong, would add vampires into the mix of such an already bold project.

Yet the result is pure Park, and Thirst’s vampires prove to be perfectly representative of his favorite themes: violent and full of dread, they are ruled by emotional ties that lead to questionable decisions and spiraling self-loathing. Interestingly as well, the hero of the film isn’t the Thérèse figure but her lover, here turned into a Catholic priest already plagued by doubts regarding his ability to help others. To feel useful, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho, again) decides to take part in a medical experiment that, through blood transfusions, contaminates him with both a virus and vampirism. Upon his return to Seoul, he finds himself unable to resist the pleasures of the flesh and starts an intensely physical sexual affair with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), whom he remembers from childhood but who has since married her frail and all-together-awful adoptive brother. By changing the focus of his story, Park also turns the priest from an eventually unhelpful sleazebag in Zola’s novel to a victim of his own passionate love. It’s not the most intuitive choice, as it does away with the feminist angle of the book, but it does allow the director to further dig into the guilt and longing for absolution that slowly overtake his hero.

Park’s camerawork is as vivacious as ever, while the editing chops up the narrative into bloody chunks as Sang-hyun—becoming nocturnal and trying his best to avoid killing people for blood, à la Brad Pitt in Interview With the Vampire—loses his grasp on reality. The whirlwind action is occasionally too disorienting to be truly thrilling, but on occasion, Park generates affecting moments that are at once true to Zola’s style of intimate emotional turmoil, and beautifully twisted by his own supernatural touch.

Psychosexual Dynamics

Lazic: Unbelievably, the director who made a film called Thirst about vampires commiting a crime of passion is big into sex and the power it has over our minds. And as that film demonstrated, Park Chan-wook’s view of sex is not so easily summarized—which already reveals that he gets something right: sex is weird as hell. Unlike other stylish directors of the erotic, Park never lets sex be either only physical or only cerebral: the medium is the message, and the camera captures the thrill and the thoughts that those encounters provoke. In The Handmaiden, by far his sexiest film, the spectator is clearly invited to visually share in the pleasures of the heroines together, and if some critics found Park to be leering, others (like me) understood his approach as overly empathetic. The director validates and celebrates those women’s preference for highly performative sex, without ever letting it be a gratuitous display of their bodies.

Sex is always charged in Park Chan-wook’s cinema, and it always advances the narrative—even when, at first, it doesn’t seem to be more than a bonus genre element thrown in to spice things up. The hero of Oldboy will come to regret sleeping with the sushi girl who helped him on his quest, and this guilt will transform both their lives. Park’s fascination and anxiety toward sex and procreation is similar to that of French art cinema queen Claire Denis: Incest and other taboos always threaten the pure delight of orgasms, and knowledge and memory can’t be shaken away. In Thirst, the ghost of his lover’s dead husband prevents the hero and said lover from making the same passionate love they used to make before their crime. In The Handmaiden, it is heavily implied that the heiress Lady Hideko finds it impossible to have sex with her husband because of the trauma of her violent uncle; but when she sleeps with her handmaiden, and finds herself enjoying it, she soon falls in love.

Because Park sees psychology as inseparable from sexuality, sex in his films can be very bad, too. Used to overpower others, it turns as ugly and degrading as his more typical action-film violence can be. The infamous octopus living in the basement and guarded by Lady Hideko’s uncle hints at the unspeakable sexual torture he would inflict on her throughout her life. It also inevitably brings to mind the live octopus that Oldboy himself devours, long before learning the true identity of his lover—a fact denied to both parties through mental manipulation—and cutting his own tongue off to ask his tormentor to make the hideous truth go away. Where there’s an eight-limbed mollusk, there’s trouble.

Park’s coupling of body and soul makes him a distinctive director of sex relations, whether through explicit sex scenes or power dynamics between intimate partners. Depending on the quality of the relationship, his attention to this carnal and spiritual connection will be exhilarating or traumatizing. But in either case, his uncompromising approach to sex—as at once fundamental and superficial, beautiful and terrifying, special and commonplace—is endlessly validating. There are no limits to how good, or how bad, it can get.

The Handmaiden

Surrey: The film that, at least in my mind, stands as Park’s greatest masterpiece, The Handmaiden is an erotic, occasionally metatextual dive into the act of storytelling through the lens of a relationship between two women—and the two terrible men they’re entangled with.

The basic plot, which begins to get really twisty thanks to several narrative sleights of hand, is as follows: In Japanese-occupied Korea, a Korean pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) conspires with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo, arrogant and punchable in the best possible way) to persuade the wealthy noblewoman Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to marry the Count so he may take her considerable fortunes. Hideko’s insidious and pervy uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong)—who forces Hideko to perform readings of, basically, old-timey erotica that includes hentai to rich clientele who get off on the performance—is also planning to marry his own niece so he can claim the inheritance for himself.

The dynamic between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko, however, becomes the centerpiece of the story, as the two women engage in what appears to be sexual and emotional manipulation of one another. Who is playing whom, and how every shocking twist will unfold, is the basest thrill of watching The Handmaiden. The psychosexual interplay between the two women—and how they interact with Count Fujiwara and Kouzuki—relies heavily on performance, and at times it’s up to the audience to figure out which emotions are performative and which are genuine—which makes the movie endlessly rewatchable, as so many scenes read differently once you understand the characters’ true motivations.

But because it is Park’s last film before his work on The Little Drummer Girl, The Handmaiden also serves as the through line for the themes the auteur is most interested in exploring. The beating heart of the AMC series is the psychosexual dynamic between Florence Pugh’s Charlie and Alexander Skarsgard’s Gadi—who convincingly recreate a fictitious affair between a Palestinian bomb-maker and herself in order to convince the terrorist cell of her loyalty—and the Russian nesting doll of emotional manipulation that has the young actress losing her perception of what’s real and what’s not. When some modicum of sincerity and sexual expression is shared between Charlie and Gadi, it’s as cathartic as watching Park’s past characters enact vengeance—just in a very different context.

The Little Drummer Girl may not provide the same kinetic mania as the best of Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy, but just like The Handmaiden, the director revels in the little details, as well as the sexual politics between two attractive people wearing fancy clothes from a different era. The images of Park’s work—whether through intense fits of violence, electric sexual energy, or the intricate details of their atmosphere—have been uniquely stunning for decades. The upside of it taking this long for Western audiences to appreciate the director’s body of work is that there’s a lot of good stuff to catch up on.