What Hollywood can learn from Park Chan-Wook

Acclaimed Korean writer and director Park Chan-Wook has created some of South Korea’s most famous films which include the powerfully symbolic ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ and his first vampire film ‘Thirst’. His films have flourished the world over despite their violent content and graphic sexual exploits on-screen. He has now begun to break into the English-speaking world of film with his new film ‘Stoker’ staring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode which is due for release in 2013. However, 2013 also brings with it another attempt to bring Korean film into the English-speaking world – only this one will not have half the masterful skill or directorial grace of Park Chan-Wook. I am talking of course about the American remake of ‘Oldboy’.

Ten years after Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Oldboy’, comes a remake of the same name from ‘Malcolm X’ director Spike Lee. American remakes of Asian films usually don’t go down too well, or don’t do the original film much justice in terms of imagery, symbolism or meaning. Instead they focus on shock value, special effects or horror and gore for horror and gore’s sake. Examples of this last attribute can be found in the American remake films ‘One Missed Call’, ‘The Grudge’ and ‘The Ring’.  These remakes are far less scary than their original counterparts because they focus mostly on special effects or over-done tropes of horror cinema. It is for these reasons that I am fearful of the remake of ‘Oldboy’ as the original film is so contextually rich and the story is portrayed by amazing actors, that I doubt it’s American equivalents of the remake could hold even the faintest candle to their predecessors. One reason for this is the use of ‘unknowns’. These are the actors and actresses that are making their first debut in film, and whilst everyone must start somewhere I doubt that Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister to the Olsen twins) can live up to the character she will be playing.  Having said that, the use of Hollywood mega stars could also have its pitfalls and be just as detrimental to the film as the ‘unknowns’. However, when the Hollywood mega stars such as Christian Bale and Will Smith turned down the roles that they were offered for this remake that should have sent up little red flags to the very idea of making a remake of such a masterpiece in the first place.


Hollywood film is dominated by explosions, special effects, and remakes. More and more increasingly, Hollywood is relying on big names and pretty faces in order to make a film successful when it is clearly devoid of any plot. When done successfully, the clever marketing of sex appeal and the unattainable fantasy can be sold to a vulnerable target and cause a global phenomenon (‘Twilight’ I’m talking about you). However, this isn’t the only way to make a film successful. The other way is to stretch a series out over a decade and hope that the fans will stay interested and buy into it just to see it through to the end (‘Harry Potter’ I’m talking about you now.) These tactics, whilst undeniably financially successful, seem to ignore the concept that filmmaking is an art.

American remakes of films, regardless of the film’s original origin, is inevitable but Hollywood should take notes on how these directors made such good films in the first place, instead of just taking their ideas and Americanising them. They can start by learning about what makes a good movie from Park Chan-Wook.

Park Chan-Wook is consistent with the delivery and quality of his films. He focuses on the characters, story and plot and fills them with deep imagery and meaning. His use of special effects is minimal because they are simply not needed, his strength lies in the showing the ‘real’ in his films. A lot of Park Chan-Wook’s work is relatively low-key. He doesn’t utilise special effects just because he can, instead, he uses them to illustrate a point he had already made in the subtext of his film, and give it a visual outlet. An example of this is found in his 2009 film ‘Thirst’. The final scene shows the vampires embracing each other in the sunlight as their skin blisters and bleeds before ultimately turning to ash. Whilst the special effects are graphic, the focus stays on the face and the eyes, and is used as an added extra to the actors’ portrayal of emotions, rather than used to carry the scene. It is a visual aid to mental and psychological agony that both of the characters have gone through throughout the film. He suffered from losing his faith and succumbing to sin, but most intensely from watching the innocent and pure love he has for a mistreated young women become ravaged by the monster that he turned her in to. She is in utter repentance for who she has become and she knows that had she been stronger in faith like the priest, she could have kept her life and her love. The special effects are used as a symbol of the physical manifestation of the suffering these two caused each other and themselves throughout the film.

Park Chan-Wook is also known for his handheld camera shots and angles. Instead of the ultra-sleek and super clean camera shots that come from the use of a dolly in Hollywood films, Park Chan-Wook’s films use a handheld camera to give a slightly shaky effect to the film. The handheld camera is not as extreme as ‘The Blair Witch Project’ for example, instead it moves subtly so that the audience can barely detect is. This makes them feel as though they are actually a part of the film; they have transcended from detached voyeur to being fully submerged in the film and its world. Many of the camera angles used in Hollywood films are executed with too much precision and hinder the audience’s ability to really experience the film as a whole.

Another trait that Hollywood can learn from Park Chan-Wook is the art of silence. Park Chan-Wook is the master of being able to say a lot with little or no dialogue. Hollywood films often get overwhelmed by dialogue, using it in an attempt to either create plot or story, to move it on or to fool the audience into thinking that is there at all. Park Chan-Wook on the other hand knows exactly how to use silence and understand the truly monumental power that it has. Throughout ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ there are many experiences of near silence from the characters that can last for several minutes. Yet it is the use of a simple whimper, mumble or moan or even a flash of emotion in their eyes that are the defining and most memorable moments of the film.

A final attribute that Hollywood film should adopt from Park Chan-Wook is the use of the ‘real’. Park Chan-Wook’s films contain characters that are so relatable to the audience. This is because, although he story may seem unreal, the characters strike a strong resemblance to the ‘real’ person. Everything from seeing them prepare dinner, to their conversations with each other to their sexual encounters is shot and performed with gritty realism that makes these films so good. The sex scenes are not highly choreographed, polished and perfect porn-like pieces like in Hollywood films – they are awkward, clumsy and almost stumbled through, just like in real life. In his attempt to show the flaws of real life in his films, Park Chan-Wook’s works have become pieces of perfection.

Another example of the ‘real’ is in ‘Lady Vengeance’. The scene in which a group of parents are discussing what to do with the murderer of their children that they have tied up in the next room lasts for several minutes and the camera barely leaves the room. The dialogue between these characters is so riveting in its portrayal of the ‘real’ of this moral dilemma that it isn’t necessary for the camera to be anywhere but in this conversation. The characters show their torment between wanting their revenge, and the moral implications of acting on this want. Realism is one of those attributes of a film that leaves the majority of the audience who are unfamiliar with film theory unable to explain why a film is so good. Instead they just state that “it just is” and it is this realism amongst other things that help make Park Chan-Wook’s films so successful.

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