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We've delved into the minds of some twisted directors in the past from Paul Verhoeven and Paul Schrader to Brian De Palma and Dario Argento, but this may be our most sexually diabolical director yet. South Korean writer, producer, and director Park Chan-wook got a slow start in the industry, and following the box office failure of his first two films, he turned to film criticism, just like Schrader. 

When his 2000 film Joint Security Area became one of the highest grossing films in Korean cinema, however, his career took off and he became the world's preeminent filmmaker dealing with the futility of vengeance. If there is a current flowing through all of his films, it runs counter to that old Klingon proverb stating that revenge is a dish best served cold. In Park Chan-wook's world, revenge is a dish served at your own peril. No matter how righteous his characters are in their motives for seeking revenge, they ultimately end up making things worse for themselves in the long run by pursuing revenge at any cost. 

It's appropriate that his most well-known works are known collectively as The Vengeance Trilogy, because it is most assuredly Park's bread and butter. Even as he moves away from the specific notion of vengeance, it's clear that his films depict a world in which violence, sexual deviance, and the like all take a heavy toll on their characters. No one in his films enters into these acts lightly and you feel how much these characters are impacted by giving in to their darkest impulses. 

 

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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Given carte blanche to do whatever he liked following the massive success of Joint Security Area, Park's next film was the first in what would come to be known as his Vengeance Trilogy. Centered around a deaf ne'er do well named Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) who is desperate to get his ailing sister (Lim Ji-eun) the kidney transplant she needs, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance presents us with desperate characters, all of whom have their backs to the wall, and all of whom make increasingly terrible decisions. 

One of most the surprisingly tender aspects of the film is the relationship between Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Yeong-mi (Doona Bae). Although their plans are awful and fail spectacular fashion, their love story is sort of the emotional core of the film, particularly once tragedy befalls Ryu's sister. An hour and eleven minutes in, the two have sex and feature the first use of sign language during a sex scene...

 

A full decade before she'd become a Wachowski regular, Doona Bae bares her breasts during this frantic sex scene, done with dueling POV between her and Ryu, a technique Park will return to time and again throughout his filmography...

 

As for the film itself, Park stated in an interview that he intentionally made the film emotionally exhausting, to better place the audience in the shoes of the characters...

I wanted to make something that felt too real. I said from the start, "I want the film to be felt physically, not just emotionally." I wanted the audience to be tired when they finished the film. I wanted their bodies to be tired. I thought people would love that. I like that kind of experience.

Putting the audience through the wringer isn't a concept that's exclusive to Park, as other directors like Michael Haneke have made it their stock in trade. However, Park's characters might be the first to garner both empathy and repulsion in equal measure from the audience. He condemns all of his characters, but not before he gets you on their side. 

 

Oldboy

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One of the most revered and respected films of the new millennium, 2003's Oldboy is the quintessential Park Chan-wook film. Should you want to introduce someone to the director's work, this is the place to start because it's got everything. In fact, the film's violent content is second in shock factor only to the insanely twisted sex scenes, and everything from the octopus eating scene to the hallway fight has reached legendary status among cinema snobs...

 

Continuing his themes on the futility of vengeance, the film's protagonist is a drunken businessman named Oh Dae-su (Park regular Choi Min-sik), a clever Korean play on Oedipus, a man who never makes it home one night, waking up in a locked room where he is held without any information on his captors or situation. In short order we find out that his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect, though none of that seems to matter when he is suddenly set free one day 15 years later.

Reintegrating into society, Oh Dae-su is out to avenge his wife's murder and discover what happened to his young daughter. He makes friends with a much younger sympathetic waitress in a sushi restaurant named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) who offers to aid in his investigation. It isn't long before the two give in to their desires and end up having sex, with Mi-do sobbing her way through the encounter...

 

Oh Dae-su soon discovers that his entire life was upended by a old boarding school classmate, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), who concocted this byzantine revenge scheme after Dae-su discovered that Woo-jin was having an affair with his own sister. The sister eventually committed suicide, sending Woo-jin into a spiral that left him determined to ruin Dae-su's life. As the icing on the cake, he also informs Dae-su that Mi-do is in fact his long lost daughter, another essential element of the revenge plot, as Woo-jin wanted Dae-su to carry the guilt of sleeping with a family member for the rest of his life.

Through a flashback, we get to see Woo-jin's encounter with his sister, played by Yoon Jin-seo, who takes off her bra and exposes her breasts for her brother to nuzzle on...

 

Yeah, the twisted family sex dynamics on display in this film are a bit much for your average audience member to handle, but the film is such a bold and brilliant illustration of the ultimate destructive power of revenge. The fact that the bad guy ostensibly wins in the end makes it all the more depressing, but it also demonstrates the point that when revenge is all there is in your life, you lose all purpose once that revenge has been achieved. 

Whatever you do, skip the 2013 Spike Lee remake of the film, as it's nothing more than a neutered, watered down version of this story with a tacked on "ironic" ending that's designed to make audiences go nuts over how clever it is. The problem is that it isn't clever by half, it's dumb, and I can only imagine what that movie would have looked and felt like had Will Smith not dropped out of the lead role. As it stands, your best course of action is to just check out the scenes we have here on Mr. Skin, as they're the only parts of the remake worth watching. 

 

Lady Vengeance

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Park closes his Vengeance Trilogy with the least skin-filled entry, 2005's Lady Vengeance. The most, dare I say, optimistic film in the unconnected trilogy, though when compared with Quentin Tarantino's similarly themed Kill Bill, this has a far more bleak view of humanity. Lee Young-ae stars as Geum-ja, a woman released from prison for good behavior after serving thirteen years for the murder of a five year old boy. Over the course of the film, we come to find out that Geum-ja was willingly framed for the crime, and is now setting out to exact revenge and regain custody of her daughter.

The real perpetrator is Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik, back for more after Oldboy), who threatened to kill Geum-ja's infant daughter when a kidnapping plot went awry—a recycled plot theme from Mr. Vengeance. While still in prison, Geum-ja attempts to curry favor with various other inmates in hopes that this will lead to them helping her when the time comes for her to exact revenge on Mr. Baek. During these early machinations, she stumbles on two inmates in the midst of a lesbian tryst. 

The inmate referred to as "The Witch" is played by Go Soo-hee, and she is the most feared of all the inmates. Here, she is having her box munched on by an underwater Ra Mi-ran, whose buns are briefly visible under the water...

 

 

As part of Geum-ja's plan, she spills some soap on the floor of the baths, causing The Witch to take a nasty spill from which Geum-ja can then nurse her back to health. This, of course, is all a ruse as she slowly begins to poison The Witch as a means of gaining the trust of the other inmates. Despite the film's brilliant color palette, there is a version of that exists in which the color slowly degrades over the course of the film, eventually becoming black and white in the film's third act. 

 

Thirst

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His Vengeance Trilogy now behind him, Park cleansed his palate with the romantic comedy I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, before plunging into the world of horror with this loose adaptation of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin by way of vampires. Park regular Song Kang-ho—who played a bereaved father out for revenge in Mr. Vengeance—here plays Sang-hyun, a Catholic Priest who ministers to victims of a terrible immune disease with a very low survival rate. Volunteering to be a test subject for a new vaccine backfires when he himself gets infected the disease. 

Following a blood transfusion, Sang-hyun makes a miraculous recovery that is hailed as a miracle by his parishioners, but little do they know that it has left him an honest-to-goodness vampire. Blood isn't the only thing this once chaste man now lusts for, as he finds himself uncontrollably attracted to his friend's wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). The two give in to their baser temptations 37-minutes in when they commence an affair behind the back of her ill husband...

 

Eight minutes later, the two get busy in a hospital bed as Tae-ju is now hell-bent on killing her husband with the help of her new vampire lover...

 

As their plan spirals out of control, Tae-ju's guilt gets the better of her and she asks her lover to kill her so she can be reunited with her husband in death. Upon doing the deed and feeding on her blood, however, Sang-hyun decides he doesn't want to be without her and gives her his own blood, bringing her back to life as a vampire...

 

Taking a story from the Belle Epoque, revitalizing it with Vampires, adding in all of that Catholic guilt, and translating the whole thing to Korea is the kind of task that, on paper, would only be undertaken by a madman. Thankfully Park is a madman of the highest order who handles all of this with aplomb. He also crafts his most romantic ending to any of the six films we're talking about in this article, with the two lovers turning to dust together as they watch the sunrise. 

 

Stoker

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Park's 2013 thriller covers a lot of firsts for the director. It was his first English language film, his first with a major established Western star (Nicole Kidman), and the first film he directed which he did not also have a hand in writing. This was more than a little surprising considering it's very much in line with the other worlds and scenarios Park has dreamed up over the years. The film was written by, of all people, Wentworth Miller from Prison Break, though Park had a very positive reaction to the script...

"It wasn't a script that tried to explain everything and left many things as questions, so it leads the audience to find answers for themselves and that's what I liked about the script... I like telling big stories through small, artificially created worlds."

Mia Wasikowska stars as India Stoker, a teenager of wealth and means, who loses her father in a car accident. Her intense hatred of her mother Evelyn (Kidman) reaches a crescendo when her father's long lost brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up and announces his plans—made jointly with Evelyn—to stay indefinitely to help these two women get back on their feet. There's obviously a lot more to Charlie than he lets on, and an encounter involving him and India just prior to the one hour mark solidifies their mutual perversions.

A pre-Solo Alden Ehrenreich turns up as Whip, one of India's classmates, who goes to the woods with her for a makeout session. When she becomes aggressive with him, he feigns disgust, but ultimately ends up attempting to sexually assault her. Out of nowhere, good old Uncle Charlie shows up and kills Whip. India helps him cover up the crime, goes home, and masturbates in the shower about the whole ordeal, climaxing when Uncle Charlie snapped Whip's neck...

 

While there's not a ton of skin for a nude debut, the context is so twisted and disturbing that it makes for an instant classic. Wasikowska was already a Disney "princess" at this point thanks to Alice in Wonderland, so to see her masturbating in the shower just three years was a real treat most of us didn't expect.

 

The Handmaiden

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While Oldboy will always be my favorite of Park's films, this one might just be his best. Once again porting another culture's story over to Asian culture—this time, early 20th Century Japanese controlled Korea—Park's adaptation of a 2002 Victorian-era novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters is a whodunit of the highest order with some of the best lesbian mainstream content put on film since Blue is the Warmest Color

Min-hee Kim stars as Lady Hideko, a wealthy heiress who finds herself a pawn in a game being played by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), and his expert pickpocket companion Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim). The Count's plan is to seduce, marry, and ultimately commit Lady Hideko to an insane asylum, leaving him in control of her immense wealth. He hires Sook-hee to take a job at Lady Hideko's home as a handmaiden, in hopes that she will gain her trust and help push her into the arms of the Count.

It is thought that Lady Hideko is desensitized to sex, and therefore immune to the Count's charms, but these foolish men like the Count and her controlling Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) clearly do not understand women. As both Hideko and Sook-hee come to discover that they were being used by the powerful men in their lives, they set out to exact revenge and begin a torrid love affair. Park's constantly moving camera becomes painstakingly controlled in the lesbian encounters between Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, utilizing gorgeously realized symmetrical compositions...

 

Park also utilizes more than just sex to illustrate the bond between these two women. In a shot with nearly no nudity, the clasping of two hands is as erotically symbolic as anything you'll see on film as the two Kims scissor away...

 

I also love the hesitancy of their first encounter, as Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) isn't quite sure what to do with her tongue while between Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim)'s legs...

 

The film's final sex scene even involves the two ladies experimenting with some Ben Wa Balls...

 

There's a joyous exploration of sexuality happening in the back half of this film as these two women from very repressed upbringings discover that there is indeed pleasure to be found in sex, providing you take pleasure in the person with whom you're having sex. It's a lesson that's particularly resonant due to the film's setting, just another reason Park is so savvy as a filmmaker. 

If you've noticed Park's penchant for making audiences uncomfortable, you're not alone. He himself acknowledged as much when asked why his films are so extreme...

"I don't feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort, I don't understand why you wouldn't go to a spa."

We couldn't agree more. 

 

Check out the Other Directors in Our Ongoing "SKIN-depth Look" Series

Robert Altman: Act I

Robert Altman: Act II

Adrian Lyne

Martin Scorsese

Jane Campion

Bob Fosse

Dario Argento

Wes Craven

Tobe Hooper

Todd Haynes

Danny Boyle

Stanley Kubrick

Paul Thomas Anderson

David Lynch

Brian De Palma

Paul Schrader

Paul Verhoeven

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance non-nude image via IMDb

Oldboy non-nude image via IMDb

Lady Vengeance non-nude image via IMDb

Thirst non-nude image via IMDb

Stoker non-nude images via IMDb

The Handmaiden non-nude image via IMDb