Before Hallyu, There Was Park Chul-soo (1948-2013)
The news came to me as news does these days, via Twitter. Darcy Paquet tweeting that a trustworthy source had texted him that South Korean director Park Chul-soo had died in a car crash in South Korea on Tuesday the 19th of February 2013. Later news reports clarified that Park was actually a pedestrian walking when a drunk driver ran into him, striking him dead. Park Chul-soo was 65. (That’s in Korean years. Western sources will report his age as 64.)
Park Chul-soo’s 301, 302 (1995) was a seminal film in my relationship with South Korean cinema. It was likely the first South Korean film I ever saw, likely the first one released in the United States. (In both cases, the other contender might have been Bae Yong-gyun’s 1989 film Why Has the Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? Considering the former hedge, my unreliable memory isn’t sure which I saw first and I didn’t keep a film scrapbook back then. Considering the latter hedge, I need some primary sources to prove it was the first.) I don’t need to be tentative on where I saw 301, 302. It was at the Tivoli Theatre on the Delmar Loop in St. Louis, Missouri. That theatre, along with the Hi-Pointe Theatre on McCausland across from the world’s largest Amoco sign, was where I studied off campus, where I was introduced through each theatre’s celluloid syllabus to what cinema could be. 301, 302 is one of the films I remember from my time in the dark in independent theatres in St. Louis. I would take this film foundation to San Francisco and build on it further, receiving retrospectives on Im Kwon-Taek and Jang Sun-woo upon my arrival. In addition, I was shown The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) by Hong Sangsoo and my commitment to South Korean cinema as a film-writing focus was made. 301, 302 would be one of the first films I ever wrote about for Darcy Paquet’s website for Koreanfilm.org and it’s one of my contributions to the Directory of World Cinema: South Korea. So just like I noted in the Nagisa Oshima remembrance I wrote for VCinema, Park Chul-soo is very much why I’m here as well.
301, 302 is a film about two women who live across from each other in an apartment complex. Their lives are told through flashbacks as a detective investigates why 302 went missing. The film was to this viewer a feminist statement on the emergence of modern South Korean women during South Korea’s economic ‘miracle’. I saw the two women in this surreal tale as feminists (self-identified or not) pushing back against patriarchal gazes. However, in order to truly put forward my argument, I have to ruin the major twist of the film. I have a much longer essay that’s been waiting in the wings for some time that makes that argument. But what I can say without spoilers is that the feminism I saw in 301, 302 was not a one-off, for it was present when the actresses in 301, 302 (Pang Eun-jin & Hwang Shin-hye) revisited their pairing as modern women struggling with expectations in Push! Push! (1997) and it was there in the sexual freedom of the woman taking on a much young lover in Green Chair (2005).
And it wasn’t just feminism that drew me to Park’s work. His stories were engaging yet allowing for disruptions in my comfort as a viewer. The organized chaos of the funeral in Farewell, My Darling (1996), the confrontations that occur at the party scene near the end of Green Chair, or the filming of the dysfunctional family throughout Kazoku Cinema (1998), these were examples, along with Hong Sangsoo’s infamous awkward drinking scenes, of what I found so refreshing about South Korean cinema, the willingness to disrupt, to provide awkward moments of verbal outbursts that seemed to speak to a greater truth than the sanitized cinema I was watching from the U.S. at the time. I saw Park’s cinema as a loop, with variation each time, of that moment in Yoshimitsu Morita’s Family Game (1983) when the family dining table is overturned. (This is an appropriate reference for other reasons too, since Kazoku Cinema takes place in Japan, translates to ‘Family Cinema‘ and focuses on a zainichi family in Japan, the first South Korean film I ever saw that considered the Korean diaspora.) Park was no Jang Sun-woo bad boy, but Park was participating in the same push forward in topics and story structures that called forth the eventual wave of South Korean cinema globally.
Park’s adventurous camera use seemed ripe for challenges to authority, as if he was critiquing himself as a director. From the fish-eyed views from 301 and 302’s apartments, to the vagina cam of Push! Push!, to Park’s cameo as eldest son film director who defers to the authority of his younger brother in Farewell, My Darling, to the documentary within the film of Kazoku Cinema, to the paparazzo getting tied up each time they are caught in Green Chair, even though Park told me he wanted to be the ‘commander’ of his films, Park’s films did not present himself as an all-knowing director. As a result, Park’s films seemed to encourage his audience to question everything they saw on screen in his films and, by extension, in the films of others, and, by further extension, in the mind’s camera eye each of us wields upon the world everyday.
Park Chul-soo was the first South Korean director I ever interviewed. It was arranged by his attendance at the 7th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy in 2005 where they were screening Green Chair. I found Park to be an absolute joy to interview because he gave very full answers with interesting asides. Plus, he was very animated, often gesticulating to underscore his enthusiasm. I asked Park a question I had had for sometime, how it was there were two films coming out in the same year, 1996, in which a protagonist stand-in for the director returned home for a parent’s funeral. The two films were Park’s film Farewell, My Darling with the death of a patriarch and Im Kwon-taek’s film Festival with the death of a matriarch. Park noted how it was simply a coincidence, not a Dreamworks versus Disney/Pixar duel (Antz vs A Bug’s Life, Madagascar vs. The Wild, etc.). He added that his film coming out first might have stolen the thunder from Im’s film. Park said both films tanked at the box office and he wondered if this was the source of the awkwardness that persisted between him and Im.
I do not know if that awkwardness between them continued on into later years. But what I do know is that as much as we assess awards won and lost by directors and comment on box office grosses, in my view, there is no need for winners or losers in cinema. Park and Im are not at odds with each other. They each contribute to a more fulfilling national cinema. Vibrant national cinemas need Parks and Ims. They need Hongs and Bongs. They need many Kims, Lees, and many other Parks. We don’t want a single defining voice out there because no single director is going to speak to every Korean or every international audience member. It is this diversity, along with the high quality production values and the loosening of censorship, that has made South Korean cinema the international force it is today. Park Chul-soo was one of the visionaries that introduced me to South Korean cinema. This international viewer needed a director like him. This international viewer was ready at a particular time in his impressionable life for a director like Park Chul-soo.
And I was not alone. Those of us who have been following South Korean cinema since 301, 302 know the contributing influence Park Chul-soo has had on the industry. He was there with some sassy women well before Hallyu arose. And I can’t thank him enough.
Rest In Peace, Park Chul-soo. Your films will continue to live on in many of us.
My interview with Park Chul-soo – http://www.koreanfilm.org/parkcs-int.html
My Koreanfilm.org review of 301, 302 – http://www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm90-95.html#301302
My Koreanfilm.org review of Farewell, My Darling – http://www.koreanfilm.org/kfilm96.html#haksaeng