Director Park Chan-wook makes his English language debut March 1st with "Stoker," starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman (and written by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller!?). In case you haven't heard of him and want to know why there’s such a big fuss around the South Korean director, here's a list of five films you should check out before "Stoker," all of which are currently streaming on Netflix. Caution: They're not for the faint of heart or those who get squeamish about violence.
If "Stoker" is anything like his other films, we can expect twisted family drama, gorgeous cinematography, lots of blood and plenty of hyper-violence.
"Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (2002)
The first in Park's Vengeance trilogy, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is like a cinematic version of the old Confucius quote, "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." A deaf-mute man (Shin Ha-kyun) plots to kidnap the daughter of a factory executive in order to pay for his sister's kidney operation, and naturally, things go terribly wrong. The excellent cinematography, character development and narrative twists make the film more complex than your average thriller. While not Park's first film, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is the best introduction to his work, and an accurate promise of things to come.
Unlike the other films on this list, "Oldboy" has attained such a level of infamy that even those who aren't familiar with South Korean cinema have heard of it. The second film in the Vengeance trilogy tells the story of a man (Choi Min-sik) who seeks revenge on the people who kidnapped and held him imprisoned for 15 years for seemingly no reason. Park weaves a crazy masterpiece of suspense, emotion and action leading up to an operatic finale that is one of the most disturbing endings in modern cinema. When the eating of a live octopus is one of the least shocking scenes in a film, you know you have something special. See it now before Spike Lee’s remake hits this fall.
"Lady Vengeance" (2005)
In the final film of Park’s famed Vengeance trilogy, a woman (Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison after serving more than 13 years for a crime she didn't commit, and she intends to get revenge on the man responsible. Full of symbolism (heavy red eye shadow, white tofu cakes), "Lady Vengeance" might be Park's most visually striking film in a filmography full of visually striking films. And while most of his films tend to be masculine affairs, "Lady Vengeance" is decidedly more feminine, anchored by an unwavering focus on motherhood. The film bears a mild resemblance to Tarantino's "Kill Bill," but emphasizes guilt in a much more profound way.
"I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" (2006)
Winner of my prestigious award for Best Title Ever, "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" is a departure from the rest of Park's films, if only because it’s a romantic comedy. Aside from a few festival appearances, the film never got a proper release in the States, and it's not difficult to see why: It's about a young woman (Su-jeong Lim) in a mental institution who won't eat food because she believes she's a cyborg. Yet with the aide of another patient (Korean pop star Rain), she slowly begins to improve in her own weird way. Despite some of Park's trademark carnage and bizarre performances, "I'm a Cyborg" actually turns out to be quite a sweet and unconventional romance.
Fusing Emile Zola's novel "Thérèse Raquin" with vampires, Park's "Thirst" is a haunting love story that gives us everything that "Twilight" lacks: Steamy sex, bloody murders and a satisfying narrative. In the film, a priest (Song Kang-ho) becomes a vampire after a failed experiment to cure a deadly disease. While dealing with his newfound bloodlust, he is torn between his faith and his attraction to an unhappily married childhood friend (Kim Ok-bin) who is not quite the victim she appears to be. Few can capture arterial spray quite as eloquently as Park, and he uses the vampire theme to convey the desire for a new life amidst one of complacency.