Park Chan-wook and Ultra-Violence: A Fascinating Two Decade Journey, from Obsession to Abhorrence

Decision to Leave

Expectedly, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s latest feature Decision to Leave is set to make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. Two decades after Oldboy (2003) premiered at Cannes and won the Jury Prize, it wouldn’t be any surprise if Decision to Leave too leaves a positive mark on this year’s edition. The focus here is not on the garnering of awards and/or critical acclaim. What is fascinating is Park’s evolution of his cinematic expression of ultra-violence on the human body, both male and female, over these twenty years.

Park’s unique language of violence did not begin with Oldboy, though. A year prior, fresh from his first major domestic success Joint Security Area (2000), Park pivoted to unleash a cinema of stylistic nihilistic viciousness. The human body became his sole focus, his blank canvas which he ‘creatively’ destroyed, again and again. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), his ironically titled first film of a seemingly urgent triptych, is a heady dizzying introduction to a very specific world of individual physical and psychological warfare. Park’s eagerness for how to devise unanticipated nasty and ruthless episodes made his characters run completely amok with degraded ideas on how to inflict immense harm on others.

Oldboy

Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) soon followed, and Park seemed to be thoroughly tripping over his newfound language of bodily combat. Oldboy explicitly drew attention to its precisely choreographed sequences of bloody gruesome fights and acts of self-abuse. Like Sympathy, it was personal anarchic revenge at play in its complete bloody malicious glory and overflowed into his next, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Protagonists’ gender changed, yet it was more of the same, in deceptively ‘new’ packaging. The ways to torture and kill a person has infinite possibilities and it took one filmmaker to relentlessly tap into this for his films.

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK

The way violence was portrayed on screen in South Korean cinema radically changed all thanks to Park. His influences rapidly spread within the industry. The filmmaker, however, immediately made a very curious turn. Just a year after Lady Vengeance, Park made I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), truly an off-kilter entry in his filmography. Yet, Cyborg became the beginning of Park’s own purging of his obsession.

Cyborg’s thematic and visual flavors were gentle and blatantly tender. The only extended sequence of conflict is CGI rendered and surprisingly cathartic and even slightly amusing. The blood thirsty characters of Park’s vengeance films disappeared. Violence no more wasn’t the case as much as it being made to be fantastical with no grave damage inflicted upon others. Significantly, it became an innocuous self-fulfilling endeavor. The tenor and purpose of violence had changed.

Thirst

Cyborg opened new doors and Park swiftly returned to his own prior hyper-stylized, visually eye-catching cinema of cruelty but furthering Cyborg’s themes. Thirst (2009) was undeniably seductive, but acts of brutality were rendered painful and full of guilt when wreaked on others. On the self, it became a means for inducing pleasure. Park slyly combined the two contraries and when the hunt for pleasure begins, Thirst contains and destroys its own perverse tendencies rather than aggravate the world with it.

Park reached a stage where not only acknowledged his own relationship with blood and gore in his cinema, had evidently had enough of it. If there was any lingering doubt about this, Stoker (2013) dismissed it with an apt intimate admission. An act of murder becomes a stimulus of arousal to which the protagonist eagerly consummates to great self-satisfaction and relief. Park refusing to return to the vengeful worlds of his previous films, emphatically makes them do a complete disappearing act. Stoker was Park’s own admission that the very act of killing and thinking of how it happens made him go orgasmic, hence his extravagant expressions of body horror onscreen. It gave him intense pleasure.

Stoker

What also became instantly evident is how Park freed himself of his fetish. It was within his trilogy of trilogy Cyborg, Thirst and Stoker that Park brought women front and center to create an environ for reflecting on and ridding himself of his fixation, thereby enabling him to move forward in his filmmaking journey. Where to, though?

2016 saw Park’s lush period drama The Handmaiden receive widespread acclaim. Park refined his thinking further. The Handmaiden specifically channelled the brutal physical and psychological male violence regularly perpetrated on women. At the same time, eschewing bloodshed, Park reduced this same to fiction. The Handmaiden presented a world where devious men could only helplessly consummate their arousals in their revolting Imaginations. They are eventually relegated to insignificance, who can do nothing but await their end. Women however, thrive in love and healthy relationships.

The Handmaiden

Park had changed. He not only steered clear of his persistent preoccupation, but women became his inspiration for this change as he assuredly created a world of non-violence with intelligent, enabling female protagonists. Park completely transformed into a filmmaker abhorrent to the very idea of physical warfare of any kind onscreen. It took about a decade and a half for him to continually find layers to unpeel and rid himself of his fascination that he so loved to focus on, when he began his career.

Decision to Leave

So, where will his latest, Decision to Leave, figure in his oeuvre is a very intriguing and pertinent question, not least because of his choice of female muse, Chinese actress Tang Wei. Tang, no matter how many accolades she wins in her career, will always be known for her debut in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) where her role was defined by her physicality. Her nude body was consistently on full display as she navigated a forceful, violent and violated physical relationship with a man. It seems no casual coincidence that Park has cast her in his latest, a tale of illicitness and murder a.k.a. violence. It doesn’t matter if Decision to Leave leaves Cannes 2022 with glory or is divisive in its reception. My curiosity is parked at where and how Park moves along further in his own unraveling from the theme of violence. Is there more to unpack or does he take a sudden turn to a new direction? I can’t wait to find out.