Park Chan-wook is one of South Korea’s top directors, and ever since his 2003 hit Oldboy crossed the ocean to rave reviews and cult status he’s become the most familiar Korean filmmaker to American audiences too. Of course, those audiences have remained small as foreign language films rarely reach or appeal to the masses.
That starts to change this weekend though as Park’s English debut, Stoker, hit theaters on Friday in limited release with plans to expand throughout the month. (Check here to see if it will be playing near you.) While many of our readers are already familiar with Park’s films, many others will experience his work for the first time with Stoker. It’s a good movie, a beautiful one in fact, but it’s far from his best. (My review here.)
That said, once you see it expect to walk out of the theater jonesing for more of his unique and endlessly fascinating vision. To that end, because I love sharing brilliant foreign films with fellow movie-lovers, I humbly offer up this list of Park’s Korean films ranked least best to best along with where you can find them…
6. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)
Young-goon is a teenage girl who believes she’s actually a robot. After she takes instructions from a voice in her head that most recently told her to slice her wrist, shove a wire in and then plug the other end into a wall socket. She winds up in a mental hospital where her best chance at a cure may rest in a ping-pong-playing goofball (pop sensation Rain!) with his own issues.
This is Park’s most maligned film, but it remains an interesting and visually intriguing movie. It stands apart from his others pretty clearly thanks to a tone that hides Park’s usual darkness behind some quirky characters and broad humor, but while I wouldn’t recommend starting here the film is worth a watch once you’ve seen the rest. (Amazon DVD / Netflix streaming)
5. JSA: Joint Security Area (2000)
The DMZ line between North and South Korea remains a potentially dangerous hair-trigger reality, but when two soldiers are found murdered the truth behind their death reveals a tragedy on a far more personal level.
The Korean DMZ is fertile ground for filmmakers, and Park delivers one of the bleaker looks at the men and women who straddle that line with this suspenseful and ultimately sad political thriller. It’s the oldest film on this list and the least showy, but neither of those facts diminish its emotional effect. (Amazon DVD / Netflix streaming)
4. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Ryu is poor, deaf and caring for his sister who’s in desperate need of a kidney, but when he’s fired from his job the last chance his sister has evaporates before his eyes. But then a matching organ comes available on the black market, his girlfriend suggests they kidnap his ex-boss’ young daughter for ransom to pay for the kidney and everyone’s life takes an ultimately devastating turn.
The first film in Park’s unofficial “Vengeance Trilogy” is easily the darkest movie on his resume. As in there is zero joy or light, and not a single character escapes unscathed. Don’t let that keep you away though as the movie is still a powerful and extremely violent look at how far a person would go to avenge someone they love. Distressingly grim stuff here. (Amazon DVD / Netflix streaming)
3. Oldboy (2003)
A man is kidnapped and held captive for fifteen years before being unceremoniously released. His search for answers is intertwined with further torment as his abductor continues a methodical and deadly game that most likely won’t have a happy ending.
There’s a reason this film caught the eye of international audiences so intently, several reasons actually, but they all start with Choi Min-sik’s mesmerizing and powerfully affecting performance as the man trapped at the center of the mystery. It’s accompanied by Park’s usual eye for stunning imagery, some wonderful supporting players and an incredibly twisted script. See it before Spike Lee’s remake hits screens later this year. (Amazon DVD / Blu-ray / Netflix streaming)
2. Thirst (2009)
A priest (Song Kang-ho) intent on living a charitable life volunteers to help test a new vaccine, but he contracts the deadly virus instead and dies. Almost. A transfusion of tainted blood saves his life by turning him into a vampire-like being who thirsts for blood, sex and other pleasures of the flesh, but that doesn’t mean he has to stop caring about people… does it?
This one threw many viewers for a loop, but sweet jesus is it fantastic fun. Few films can equal the mix of over the top violence, laugh out loud black comedy and overt sexuality present here, and Park presents it all with beautifully-crafted set pieces and gorgeous cinematography. (Amazon DVD / Netflix streaming)
1. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)
Geum-ja has been released from prison after serving time for kidnapping and murder, but while she was the model prisoner in the joint she immediately becomes a different beast all together on the outside. She now exists for two reasons only. First she’ll reunite with her daughter, and second she’ll get revenge on the real murderer who let her take the fall for the crime.
This remains Park’s best film in every regard. From the story to the cinematography to the performances to the sheer perfection of its ending this film is nothing less than a fucked-up masterpiece. (Amazon DVD / Netflix streaming)
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A couple notes… first, Park has actually made a total of nine feature films, but his first two (Moon Is the Sun’s Dream, Saminjo) are apparently unavailable and unseen by pretty much everybody ever. And second, his “Vengeance Trilogy” is available in a box set that’s well worth a buy (Amazon DVD / Blu-ray).