Park Chan-Wook's Penchant For Violence Comes From A Deeply Personal Place

Park Chan-wook is one of South Korea's most celebrated filmmakers, his depictions of brutal revenge and uncomfortable sexual encounters exploring the depraved depths — and tenderness — of humanity. The director has a propensity for violence that often feels too real and emotional to be described as exploitative, while the sheer breathtaking technical achievement of his more fantastical pieces of bloody rage, such as the hallway fight in "Oldboy," have influenced flashier action movies like "The Raid" and "John Wick" and television shows like "Daredevil." That combination of elegance with ugly barbarity stems from Park's own experiences with dealing with his pain, anger, and guilt, which is probably why his works seem so uncomfortably relatable.

Park Chan-wook exploded onto the Korean cinema scene with his third feature film, the mystery thriller "Joint Security Area," about a murder on the DMZ separating North and South Korea that became the highest grossing theatrical release ever in the director's native country. His subsequent "The Vengeance Trilogy," consisting of the films "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," and "Lady Vengeance," landed him the adoration of American film buffs including fellow revenge cinema aficionado Quentin Tarantino. Most recently, the erotic thriller "The Handmaiden," based on a British crime novel set in Victorian times (Park changed the setting to Japanese-occupied Korea) was another massive hit at the Korean box office when it released in 2016, despite its sordid subject matter. Park's first move since then, a detective mystery entitled "Decision to Leave," is currently racking up praise at Cannes. Clearly, the wide appeal of Park's movies signify that they're not just focused on cruelty and debauchery.

Warm revenge

Park's films are notable for the way they challenge the viewer to try to understand the motivations and emotional roots of their characters' violence, adultery, and other acts of morally dubious nature. It's disturbingly easy to see why someone so angry could get swept up in the passion of revenge, and Park makes this abundantly clear in the plights of his sympathetic protagonists. In an interview with That in 2013, Park explains:

"... I find it quite interesting and bewildering to find that in my inner self there's sometimes this desire for vengeance along with feelings of jealousy and other negative emotions. This makes me interested in how this could be and perhaps this is why I'm making films that examine this phenomenon ... I'm only making a film that is only ugly and disgusting because of the story. ... It's only when the film is beautiful that I'm able to attract attention to the subject in a serious way ... When something so dark is depicted in such a beautiful way, that's when you have irony and that's when you're able to reveal and deal with the complexities of the human nature or condition."

Park's willingness to confront his own inner demons has allowed him to connect with his audiences, showing them that the humanity's ugly side is, for better or for worse, universal. However, there's a distinctly Korean aspect to his focus on vengeance and violence, which explains his films' more popular appeal at Korean theaters.

Memories of political trauma

Park's inspirations range from American Westerns to Japanese anime and manga, but the core themes and messages of his films speak uniquely to a South Korean audience. The filmmaker grew up during a time of political turmoil in South Korea, when military strongmen wrested control of the government. According to a New York Times profile published in 2006, a year after the release of "Lady Vengeance," Park still retains feelings of guilt for not participating in student protests against the dictatorship of Chun Doo-Hwan's Fifth Republic, in which police beat and tortured students in the streets and in prison camps. Park explained how this brutality left an impression on both him and the people of his generation:

"The fear of violence made a big impression on me ... Young people have fallen into two distinct groups. Those who participated actively are proud of their sacrifices. They changed society, but they also feel deprived, because they were unable to enjoy their youth. Then there are the others, who feel guilty for not having taken part. We enjoy our freedoms without having done anything to earn them. One of the worst legacies of military dictatorship is that it polarized a whole generation."

That personal frustration has resonated with a wide national audience in South Korea, many of whom still have memories of a time not so long ago of living under fear. Perhaps that's where Park's feelings of vengeance and anger come from, and why the acts of violence committed by his characters hit so close to home for much of his native viewers. If the trauma of South Korea's dictatorship did indeed polarize its victims as Park says, then fortunately the director's films have helped to mend that gap.