Park Chan-wook is a masterful director and writer from South Korea, who specializes in crafting psychological horror and thrillers. A former film critic, his films like Oldboy and The Handmaiden have received acclaim from critics and audiences alike all over. One can argue his impact and legacy to be equal to that of fellow South Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho (ParasiteSnowpiercer).

The initial films of his early career in the 2000s might not be that impactful but he put Korean thrillers on the map with his “Vengeance” trilogy, three films that are spiritually connected to each other with the common theme of revenge. Park Chan-wook’s films boast of equal doses of style and substances, often marked with intense scenes of gore and sensuality.

8 Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002) — 56%

The first chapter in the Vengeance trilogy can be seen as one of the few Park Chan-wook films that emphasize style over substance. Critics and audiences were of the consensus that the film’s violence and gore overshadowed the plot. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance also couldn’t attain much success at the box office. Nevertheless, the film was still a big hit amongst local award ceremonies.

Similar to the director’s other adrenaline-fueled revenge dramas, the film deals with a mute man named Ryu who holds a rich tycoon’s daughter for ransom in order to fund his sister’s kidney transplant operation. When the kidnapping plan goes awry, the tycoon— played by frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho— gets driven by bloodlust for revenge.

7 Stoker (2013) — 70%

Stoker was Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, starring a talented cast led by Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode. For the film’s screenplay, the director relied on an unconventional choice. Prison Break star Wentworth Miller helmed the script of this thriller, with slight story elements inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

The film is also pretty different from Park Chan-wook’s usual filmography, in terms of style. But if nothing else, Stoker goes on to show the director’s versatility with slow-burning thrillers too. Stoker deals with the mysterious appearance of a girl’s uncle after her father’s untimely death. While she develops an infatuation with this relative, she also realizes that he might have some ulterior motives of his own.


6 Lady Vengeance (2005) — 76%

The final chapter in the filmmaker’s Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance revolves around the arrest of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) who gets framed for a murder she never committed. Similar to Oldboy’s protagonist, the character rots in prison for several years until she finally gets released. Once set free, she decides to seek the help of her prison friends in executing a detailed plan to exact revenge from the people who conspired against her while finding her estranged daughter.

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Similar to the other hyperviolent entries in the trilogy, Lady Vengeance can be brutally disturbing for some viewers while being visually enthralling at the same time.

5 TIE: Joint Security Area (2000) — 81%

This 2000 film takes place in the DMZ, the heavily fortified border that lies between North and South Korea. After a fatal shooting of North Korean soldiers, a neutral Swiss committee intervenes to piece the incident together as it gets different narratives from soldiers of both sides.

Joint Security Area was a major start not only for Park Chan-wook’s career but also for its leading men, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun, both of whom would eventually receive international fame later. The former would end up appearing in several other memorable Park Chan-wook films. The film was a big hit in South Korea, becoming the highest-grossing film of its time.

4 TIE: Thirst (2009) — 81%

Thirst finds Park Chan-wook venturing into erotic vampire territory as Song Kang-ho plays a priest who undergoes a drug test before using it to fight famine in African nations. This drug alters his moods and curses him with an insatiable lust and taste for blood. The priest gives up his moral affiliations as he engages in a downward spiral of violent and sexual encounters.

With haunting aesthetics and top-notch acting performances, Thirst is another cult thriller in the visionary director’s filmography. Despite its horror premise, the film can also be seen as a dark comedy.

3 Oldboy (2003) — 82%

The film that introduced Park Chan-wook to a global audience, Oldboy has stood the test of time as an influential thriller and action film. The protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) serves as a perfect character study for understanding the psyche behind revenge and the eventual madness that accompanies it. The plot kicks off with his solitary confinement for several years and his eventual release. However, now Oh Dae-su’s mission is to find out the identity behind his captor, an old acquaintance who has a vendetta of his own.

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The heartbreaking story aside, Oldboy’s action sequences (the hallway scene in particular) stand out, influencing even Hollywood fight scenes. Director Spike Lee released an American remake in 2013 starring Josh Brolin.

2 I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok (2011) — 92%

The lightest film from Park Chan-wook’s catalog, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok is a romantic comedy that’s wholesome yet introspective. The bizarre title can be explained from the heroine’s conviction that she’s a combat cyborg. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric hospital, she finds solace in a schizophrenic kleptomaniac.

Likable characters, offbeat humor, and minimalist visuals embellish this feel-good film. The lead performances by Im Soo-jung (of A Tale of Two Sisters fame) and popstar Rain also drew further praise.

1 The Handmaiden (2016) — 95%

The Handmaiden is perhaps Park Chan-wook’s most multi-layered film, venturing into the genres of erotica and psychological horror. Set in a period when Korea fell under Japanese rule, the film starts off with the attempts of a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to seduce an elite Japanese woman (Kim Min-hee) and eventually rob her of her inheritance. What follows is a sophisticated plot that undergoes several twists and turns.

For the film’s story, the director was inspired by a Victorian-era novel. However, the stylistic elements and the big reveal in the end, highlights the thriller veteran’s originality.

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