The short films of Park Chan-wook
In the wake of two box office disappointments for his first feature films – The Moon Is... the Sun’s Dream (1992) and Trio (1997) – Park ended the decade by finding his directorial feet somewhat. While Joint Security Area (2000) made him a star, in some senses Judgment is the birth of Park’s now-famous black comedy and bizarre genre-bending surprise developments.
In a hospital morgue, the body of a woman in her 20s lies, her face damaged from a major incident. Alongside the funeral caretaker, played by Korean cinema legend Ki Joo-bong (The Quiet Family, 1998; The Spy Gone North, 2018), is a couple who state the deceased is their daughter. A government employee charged with settling matters and a reporter covering the death join them. The woman cannot be identified by known scars on her legs as they are missing and as the reporter starts to question the parents, their vague answers begin to arouse suspicion.
The film is largely in black and white, but cleverly jumps to colour in line with a narrative development. Thought-provoking and proudly morbid, Director Park begins to establish a style here that will flourish in later features. There is also a claustrophobia and unease to the entire film, part driven by the content and partly from Park’s direction choices. Unconventional, dark and unique, Park manages to develop the strings to his bow that will later produce a series of unique hits.
Never Ending Peace and Love (2003)
In 2003, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea gave $39,000 to six prominent Korean directors. The directors – including Park – were given free rein in terms of subject and style to create a short film that deals with discrimination in Korea. The final film was named If You Were Me, with Park’s contribution called 'Never Ending Peace and Love'.
Based on a true story, Park’s segment focuses on Chandra Gurung, a Nepalese labourer who is working as an assistant in a Seoul textile factory. She orders noodles from a restaurant near the factory and then realises she is without her purse. The restaurant then reports Chandra to the police and when they speak with her, they mistake her lack of coherent Korean as a sign of mental instability. This confusion is amplified because Chandra is from a Nepalese tribe with a similar appearance to Koreans. The strange situation results in Chandra being sent to a mental hospital for over six years.
The film is shot three years before Park produces a full feature set in a mental institution with I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, which also deals with the concept of if a certain patient that should be in such a hospital. 'Never Ending Peace and Love' is a large stylistic departure for Park, shot by combing point-of-view shots from Chandra with to-camera dialogue from other characters. It also uses that classic Park fear of the worst of worlds descending on a helpless character.
In 2002, horror anthology Three was released, featuring a trio of shorts from Asian directors, including Korean Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003; I Saw the Devil, 2010). Two years later, a follow-up was released with even darker tones titled Three... Extremes. Park joined Hong Kong director Fruit Chan and Japan's Takashi Miike to create the films and Park duly produced his very best short film to date.
A successful film director (Lee Byung-hun – Joint Security Area, 2000; A Bittersweet Life, 2005) returns home from a day of shooting to find that an extra from a previous film has tied the director’s wife (Kang Hye-jung – Oldboy, 2003; Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005) to a piano in an elaborate system of sharp piano wires. The extra tells the director they will play a deadly game – the wife, who is a pianist, will have one of her fingers chopped off every five minutes until the director kills a young girl the extra met while on the way.
The set-up is that masterful gut-churning horror that Park has created in several of his films. There is also plenty of black comedy, including a scene where the extra perform a bizarre dance routine. Perhaps the best element is the lashing of Park style, especially the image of the wife tied to the piano with the strings which is a vision of terrifying fate that still manages to look like a work of contemporary art.
Night Fishing (2011)
Chan-wook is not the only director in the family and he pairs up with brother Chan-kyong, who work together under the brand name PARKing CHANce. The pair combined for a unique project in 2011 when they shot Night Fishing entirely on an Apple iPhone 4 on a budget of 150 million Korean Won (US$127k).
Given a Korean title of Paranmanjang, which means “a life full of ups and downs” in Korean, the story focuses on a man setting up for a fishing trip by the water’s edge. As darkness falls, he gets a tug on his line and is presented with the body of a woman. As he tries to disentangle himself from the fishing lines, she comes alive, strangles him and he passes out. When he awakens, he finds himself at a shaman ceremony.
“The new technology creates strange effects because it is new and because it is a medium the audience is used to,” Park Chan-wook said at the time. There were actually several advantages to using iPhones: “because it is light and small and because anyone can use it”. Chan-kyong added that because numerous cameras could be used, a wide variety of angles and edits were possible. The final result transitions far beyond an iPhone gimmick and you soon forget about that aspect. Instead you are left with a beautiful, otherworldly experience rooted in Korean mythology.
Day Trip (2012)
PARKing CHANce reunited in 2013 to produce an 18-minute short commissioned and funded by outdoor clothing brand Kolon. Despite the corporate backing of the project, it seems the Park brothers were largely given freedom to create something aligned with their artistic vision. Better still, Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Memories of Murder, 2003; Parasite, 2019) stars.
The film focuses on pansori, a form of Korean musical storytelling performed by a singer and a drummer and most famously portrayed in the classic Seopyeonje (1993). In Day Trip, the pansori master, played by a white-haired Song Kang-ho, is tutoring his young student played by real life pansori singer Jen Hyo-jung. Filmed at Mount Namsan in Gyeongju, the pair practice after a failed music competition entry, with the trip forming part of a 100-day practice session.
Much of the film’s importance hinges on the combination of the traditional Korean music and the wilderness setting which perfectly matches its tone and delivery. It is a spiritual journey that produces a smoothing viewing experience. There is a mildly jarring juxtaposition of having Korea’s greatest modern actor performing alongside a non-professional actress, but Jen Hyo-jung's performance is more than acceptable while her pansori is perfection. Beautiful, atmospheric and meaningful, the Park brothers do a fine job of transitioning a corporate piece into something far more meaningful.
A Rose Reborn (2014)
Director Park undertook another corporate project in 2014, on a solo basis this time, working with international fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, known for its pricy suits. Alongside Park, there is plenty of other star power, such as English actor Jack Huston, Chinese-American star Daniel Wu and even a score from esteemed composer Clint Mansell.
Stephen (Jack Huston) is a successful young CEO based in London who faces the possibility of selling his invention to a mysterious Chinese billionaire, Mr. Lu (Daniel Wu). However, before he can even meet this potential investor he faces a number of challenges, journeys and riddles. Much of this centres on the exchange of clothes (the pay-off for Zegna), including having to swap trousers in a
The film finishes on a highly cheesy message, but the overall thrust of bringing East and West together largely lands, one Park understands as an Eastern filmmaker influenced by Western film, most prominently Hitchcock. These two CEOs are supposed to signal the growth of global relations, but also a new leadership class where being compassionate and environmentally conscious is just as important as being successful. Rich with symbolism and plenty of that slick Park directing style, it is still a short that too often feels like an advert to be particularly impactful as a film by itself.