Although he is conspicuously absent from VOH’s Hall of Visionaries, Park Chan-Wook is one of the most acclaimed and respected filmmakers in the world. And with his upcoming film Stoker, Park will make his English language directorial debut. Not much is currently known about the film, which will star Matthew Goode (Watchmen), Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman. However, it should be noted that the track record of international filmmakers that have made the transition to Hollywood film is mixed at best, especially for the filmmakers who were not native English speakers.
Visionaries such as Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), Guillermo de Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel), Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor) have all successfully made the transition. However, there are countless others, such as Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas), Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, My Blueberry Nights) Ringo Lam (Maximum Risk)and George Sluizer (The Vanishing), whose skills did not completely survive the translation.
Does Park Chan-Wook have what it takes to make the leap to directing English language films? There is no way to know for certain until at least Stoker comes out, but at this point we can still make determinations regarding whether or not Park is a visionary filmmaker, as we can place much more confidence in an international visionary’s skills surviving a transition to Hollywood, based upon the successes of people like del Toro, Meirelles and Bertolucci. Furthermore, if Park is not a visionary, we should not even care whether or not his skills will get lost in translation, since Hollywood is already filled with fungible, replacement-level directors.
When I make projections of a filmmaker’s ability, I remain entrenched in a sports mentality since I am a talent scout at heart, regardless of the medium. However, in analyzing Park’s skills as a filmmaker, I have decided to eschew the trendier Moneyball analytics approach and take a more old school baseball-style scouting approach. By that, I mean that I will grade Park’s “tools” as filmmaker using the standard 20-80 grading scale. In applying these grades, I will work within the assumption that as a very hands-on filmmaker, the Auteur Theory applies to Park Chan-Wook as a writer/director.
Baseball Grading Scale
80 – Top of the Mountain
70 – Plus Plus
60 – Plus
50 – League Average
40 – Fringey
30 – Subpar
20 – Poor
If at the 80 end of the spectrum you have directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and Darren Aronfsky, filmmakers who create films filled with virtuoso imagery, then at the 20 end you have filmmakers like Kevin Smith, who shoot films that look only slightly better than static security camera footage. Park is obviously at the top of the scale in this category, as all of his feature films have stood out visually through use of camera movement, inventive angles, beautifully fascinating art design, and stunning lighting. For a sample, take a look at the video below.
If directors such as Tarsem and Zack Snyder, who demonstrate complete inability to weave their pretty images into a cohesive story, sit at low end of the spectrum near the 20 grade, Park Chan-Wook sits much closer to the top end of the spectrum, just below 80 grade writer/directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. He definitely rates much higher than writer/directors with a tin ear for dialogue such as George Lucas and James Cameron.
As a true auteur, who also frequently receives writing credits on his films, Park has consistently crafted stories that have really grabbed audiences. Not limited to just one genre, Park has successfully conquered the romantic comedy (I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK), mystery drama (Joint Security Area), horror (Thirst, Lady Vengeance) and of course the action thriller (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Regardless of the genre, Parks’ films have maintained a thrilling pace, surprising and often shocking audiences while keeping them on the edge of their seats.
Working with Actors
At the 20 end of the scale, you have directors such as George Lucas, who devise ways to drain all of the charisma out of usually dynamic performers such Ewen McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portmann and Liam Neeson. At the 80 end of the grading scale, you have filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, who has extracted career-defining performances from actors whose stars were fading prior to working with him such as Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Robert Forster. Where does Park rate? As an A-list director, Park has benefitted from working with top drawer acting talents such as Lee Byung-Heon (Joint Security Area), Choi Min-Shik (Oldboy) and Song Kang-Ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but he has also directed actors such as Lee Young-Ae (Lady Vengeance), Kim Ok-Bin (Thirst) and Kang Hye-Jeong (Oldboy), who were previously just considered pretty faces, to the finest performances of their acting careers. Plus, he was able to get a very strong performance out of an inexperienced actor such as K-Pop superstar Rain in a lead role (I’m a Cyborg But That’s Ok). Overall, I would rate Park as well above average in this category, but not quite at the 80 grade level of a Tarantino.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and you can measure the influence level of a filmmaker by the number of times a director’s style is imitated. Impact can be measured by analyzing the effect that a director’s films have had on both the filmmaking community and pop culture. On both counts, Park grades out very highly. His films have inspired a new generation of filmmakers in his native South Korea, which has become one of the most fertile grounds for the development of cutting edge filmmaking in recent years, and his films, especially Oldboy, have frequently been imitated all over the world, especially in Hollywood. The infamous side-scrolling, long take fight sequence and and the brutal “dentistry” scene in particular, have transcended the world of cinema and have made it to the world of pop culture. Based upon the amount of times he has been imitated and the new generation of Korean filmmakers he has inspired, Park Chan-Wook’s influence and impact cannot be denied.
Still, if filmmakers such as Jean Luc-Godard, Martin Scorsese, and Orson Welles, men who have inspired generations of filmmakers, are at the top end of the scale, as a relatively young director Park would have to be put a few levels beneath the the perfect score of 80.
This is the most abstract and subjective of all of the categories and is the cinematic equivalent of the baseball “good face” in some ways. How much of a filmmaker’s personal touch is apparent in his work? Can one quickly identify a film as a film directed by the filmmaker in question, without knowing any prior knowledge about the film, simply based on the visual style, storytelling, etc.? If the answer to this last question is “yes”, then the filmmaker grades out very highly in this category.
Filmmakers who consistently explore particular themes such as Catholic guilt (Martin Scorsese), relative standards of morality (Quentin Tarantino), or the impact of dealing with memories (Christopher Nolan), usually grade out high in this category. Filmmakers whose films do not exhibit a unique personal touch and generate hired-hand quality work such as your standard Hollywood director, grade out at the bottom end. Although he established himself on the world stage by directing films dealing with themes related to the futility of vengeance, Park Chan-Wook ‘s subsequent films in other genres have also contained a particular personal vision, tinted with a sophisticated edginess and abundant orginality. When you watch a Park Chan-Wook film, you know it is a Park Chan-Wook film, whether it is a thriller or a romantic comedy. It is this intangible edginess that is the unmistakable imprint of a filmmaker who enjoys pushing the envelope, whether he is shooting a big budget visual dazzler like Oldboy or a low budget short film on an iPhone 4 like Night Fishing (Paranmanjang).
In baseball, a player whose five tools (running, fielding, throwing, hitting ability and power) all grade out at 50 or higher, are labeled five-tool talents, the highest compliment that can be given to a player. A five-tool talent is a complete player, who is at least average in every phase of the game, a player like Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. A filmmaker who grades out average or better in the five tool categories listed above, should be considered a five-tool filmmaker, a complete filmmaker who excels in every phase of the game and must be considered a visionary. Based on the grades received, my scouting report loudly proclaims that Park Chan-Wook is a visionary who, if he can overcome a language barrier, should excel in Hollywood. Plus, we will get to see just what a visionary Park is when Spike Lee fucks up the Hollywood remake of Oldboy.
Do you agree or disagree? Or do you simply want to discuss Park Chan-Wook? If so, let us know down in the comments section below.
I see what you did there. Sharing your baseball-derived visionary validation system while slamming some of your favorite targets. Allow me to come to the defense of George Lucas and his work with actors. While I can’t argue with the examples you used, I think Lucas did a fine job directing Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford when he established the Star Wars legend.
Oh yeah, I forgot to say: great article! I think Park Chan-Wook is fantastic, and even though I didn’t understand a work of the dialogue, I think Night Fishing kicks Terence Malick’s overrated Tree of Life in the azz. Thanks for posting those great clips.
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
“This is not good.”
Lucas wanted to have scenes of Yoda farting for comedic effect in Empire Strikes Back, but thankfully that film was the only one not written and directed by him. Writer Lawrence Kasdan, appalled by the juvenile fart jokes, asked Lucas if he really wanted Act II in his epic to play out like that and proceeded to rewrite the film into the classic that it eventually became.