Director Park Chan-wook

Every Park Chan-wook Movie, Ranked

From his impossible-to-find early works to his Oscar-contending most recent film, we take a comprehensive look at the director's impressive catalog

Director Park Chan-wook

Seminci International Film Festival

South Korean film director Park Chan-wook is once again on everyone’s lips following this year’s hotly anticipated release of his latest nail-biting romantic mystery, Decision to Leave. Hailed as a triumphant return to form from one of cinema’s greatest provocateurs, the film has been billed as Vertigo meets Basic Instinct and revolves around the burgeoning romance between a seasoned detective and the prime suspect of the case he’s been assigned to.

Long before picking up Best Director honors at the Croisette this past summer, Park had already put his stamp on contemporary cinema with visceral portraits of violence, revenge and unrequited love—most famously in the 2003 actioner Oldboy, a major career breakthrough that launched him into the mainstream and provided a cult following overseas. Hot on the heels of his latest offering, a film which will undoubtedly become a big Oscar contender after being selected to represent South Korea at the 95th Academy Awards, we have decided to take a trip down memory lane and delve back into his gruesome repertoire, ranking each of his 11 feature films from worst to best.

11. Trio (1993)

“Trio” was director Park Chan-wook’s second film.

Still frame from “Trio”

There’s no shame in conceding that even the greatest directors of all time have gone through a few rough patches before truly hitting their stride and finding their creative mojo. In Park’s case, his bumpy transition from unforgiving film critic to up-and-coming auteur resulted in two amateurish offerings that have all but faded into obscurity; neither being acknowledged these days by their own creator, who in fact has gone to extreme lengths to have every known copy destroyed.

Park’s sophomore effort does offer a glimpse at some recurring motifs that would later on become signature trademarks, such as his darkly warped sense of humor and the folly of revenge, centering around a downtrodden saxophonist, a gangster, and a nun all standing at moral crossroads. There are few traces of Park’s craftsmanship at all in this hot mess of a film, and considering that the only way to currently watch it is through a bootleg VHS transfer with subpar subtitles, we recommend skipping this one unless you’re a hardcore completionist willing to throw away 102 minutes of your precious time.

10. The Moon is…The Sun’s Dream (1992)

“The Moon is…The Sun’s Dream” was director Park Chan-wook’s very first film.


Much like fellow East Asian maestros Lee Chang-dong and Wong Kar-wai, both of whom would go on to redefine contemporary cinema, Park modeled his debut after the slew of Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed gangster B-movies that dominated the ’80s. This wordily-titled actioner navigates the schmaltzy romance between a hard-boiled Busan hoodlum named Mu-hoon (Lee Seung-chul) and his boss’ mistress, both of whom try to run off with the organization’s money.

Riddled with worn-out clichés and executed on a shoestring budget, Park’s first rodeo in the director’s chair is ultimately bogged down by its derivative melodrama, uninspired voiceovers, paper-thin characters and lackluster production values. Perhaps what puts this one ahead of Trio is the fact that, much to Park’s dismay, you can actually find a decent copy of it floating around the web.

9. Stoker (2013)

Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska in “Stoker.”

Searchlight Pictures

It was a matter of when, not if, Hollywood would come knocking at Park’s door to convince him to make an English-language film on the other side of the Pacific. That moment came in 2013, the same year fellow countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon took the plunge and released their own U.S. debuts in Snowpiercer and The Last Stand respectively.

Bolstered by commanding performances by Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, Stoker takes a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Shadow of a Doubt—plunging viewers headlong into the dizzying depths of domestic strife, where an estranged uncle tries to take advantage of his grieving sister-in-law and niece. On many fronts, Stoker has Park’s fingerprints smeared all over it: suspense, betrayal, eroticism abound amidst a barrage of twists and double-crosses and hyper-stylized compositions as we’ve grown to expect with every project bearing his name. However, within that framework, one can’t help but feel that the Korean director was treading on eggshells this time around—likely as a byproduct of the language barrier or studio interference—resulting in a sanitized version of his otherwise uncompromising bravado. Make no mistake though: even when kept on a short leash, Park still gives you plenty of bang for your buck.

Stoker is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu and YouTube.

8. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

Lim Soo-jung and Rain in “I’m A Cyborg But That's OK.”

CJ Entertainment

It’s always a welcomed sight to see established directors mostly known for a certain genre or style actively try to break out of their comfort zone and chart new waters. Hot on the heels of his celebrated Vengeance Trilogy that earned him a reputation as the undisputed king of the macabre, few would have expected Park to follow it up with a light, off-kilter romantic comedy about a hospitalized patient (Lim Soo-jung) who believes herself to be a cyborg.

At the intersection between the biting social commentary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the quirky whimsiness of Amélie, Cyborg provides a much-welcomed palate cleanser that plumbs and deepens the director’s signature pitch-black humor with surprising levity and grace. Countless films use mental disorders as a narrative trope, which has led to one too many uncompassionate portrayals that reduce their ailing characters to a cluster of harmful stereotypes and well-trodden clichés. However, Park avoids the common pitfalls of the set-up by urging the viewer not to pity these characters but rather to accept them with all their flaws.

7. Decision to Leave (2022)

Park Hae-il and Tang Wei in “Decision to Leave.”

CJ Entertainment and Moho Film

Professional duty and carnal lust brutally collide in the latest superb offering by the Korean master, in which a seasoned detective (Park Hae-il) is assigned to unearth the truth behind a cryptic homicide case, only to fall head-over-heels in love with the deceased’s widow and prime suspect (Tang Wei).

In the tradition of Basic Instinct and other amour fou staples such as Femme Fatale and American Gigolo, with ample doses of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for good measure, Decision to Leave keeps the viewer at arm’s length, simmering its erotic tension just below boiling point until it seeps from every frame of the film. The plodding central mystery unfolds at breakneck speed without losing any momentum, almost deliberately built to warrant repeated viewings in order to be fully unraveled. Fortunately, the puzzle-box narrative is held together by tensely controlled performances by co-stars Park and Tang, who masterfully feed off each other’s presence in every scene they share together. If rather subdued for the director’s sky-high standards, Decision to Leave is the rare film that feels at once operatic in scale and intimate in detail.

Decision to Leave is playing in select theaters and is available to stream on Mubi and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

6. Thirst (2009)

Kim Ok-vin in “Thirst.”

CJ Entertainment and Focus Features

Reinventing the vampire genre with radical confidence, Thirst laces its jabs on a lawful Catholic priest (the always-charming Song Kang-ho) who volunteers for experimental vaccination trials that could potentially lead to a cure for a deadly virus. As expected, things go completely awry—turning our devoted churchman into a remorseful vampire with an insatiable craving for blood and a heavy conscience.

Against this overtly familiar set-up, Park swerves around most of the genre’s well-trodden conceits by daring to grapple with the moral pickles and existential quandaries that come with it. As much a horror film as a thoughtful exploration of sin and the burden of guilt, Thirst presents vampirism not as an irredeemable evil but a proxy for social exclusion, updating it for a contemporary age in a way few films do. What should one do when faith and principles clash with your only means of survival? This is one of the many thematic linchpins cleverly observed in this thought-provoking film that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.

Thirst is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, and Vudu.

5. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

Lee Young-ae and Kwon Yea-young in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.”

CJ Entertainment and Mubi

Having now reached the cream of the crop, take the following rankings with a grain of salt. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a weak link in Park’s Vengeance trilogy. The director capped off his infamous saga on a high note, joining forces with screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeon for the first time to put a much-needed female perspective for what, up to that point, had been testosterone-heavy affairs.

Exquisitely engrossing and aesthetically virtuosic, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance puts the viewer through the wringer for 115 emotionally fraught minutes by following a wrongly imprisoned woman (Lee Young-ae) who just spent 13 years behind bars for a crime she did not commit. Upon her release, she takes it upon herself to track down and exact revenge on the monster (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) responsible for her misery; thus, triggering a cat-and-mouse game that challenges the limits of the human body and slowly dissolves the boundaries between good and evil. By the time our scornful vigilante completes her bloody quest, the cathartic nature of the film’s denouement is ultimately left for each viewer to decide.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is available to stream on Kanopy and Tubi and to rent or buy on Alamo.

4. Joint Security Area (2000)

From left, Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun and Shin Ha-kyun in “Joint Security Area.”


Viewers who commonly misconstrue Park’s catalog as provocative experiments on style with no thematic backbone will find a delightful rebuttal in this heartwarming tale of friendship, delivered in the guise of a conventional whodunit, that charts the burgeoning relationship between North and South Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bifurcating both nations. 

The past and current political tension between the two Koreas continue to haunt this adaptation of Park Sang-yeon’s bestselling novel, which runs the gamut from jovial to hair-raising to heart-wrenching without ever missing a step. Good intentions and conflicting allegiances muddle together and unfurl tragic misunderstandings and senseless bloodshed—all told in Rashomon-style point-of-view shifts. The film’s saving grace is that it refuses to take sides and patronize the viewer with naive platitudes or heavy-handed moralizing. Though admittedly not quite as pulse-pounding or formally inventive as most of his future endeavors, Park’s big breakout hit is a perfect entry point for newbies eager to dive into his work as well as a fascinating prism as which to understand Korea’s complicated history.

JSA is available to stream on Arrow Player and Tubi and to rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and Apple TV.

3. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Shin Ha-kyun and Bae Doona in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.”

CJ Entertainment and Tartan Films

Seventeen years before Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) took the world by storm with his Oscar-winning indictment on capitalism—which among other things, cast an unwavering eye on South Korea’s mounting class divide—Park delivered a similarly politically tinged treatise on class resentment and economic disparity with Mr. Vengeance.

The first and perhaps most grounded—but certainly not least gruesome—installment in the trilogy puts us in the shoes of a deaf-mute factory worker (Shin Ha-kyun) struggling to raise the money to fund a kidney transplant surgery for her sick sister (Bae Doona). After the former gets fired from his job, the couple of siblings hatch a plan to kidnap the company president’s daughter for ransom; an ill-advised scheme that, needless to say, backfires spectacularly. Though often swept under the rug as the “lesser” entry in the trilogy, Mr. Vengeance burrows deep into the pit of human misery, examines the inexorable stranglehold of fate and fearlessly confronts the futility of vengeance. Viewer discretion is advised as the film features plenty of stomach-churning scenes that can easily lodge into one’s memory banks.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is available to stream on Kanopy, Tubi and Vudu.

2. Oldboy (2003)

Choi Min-sik in “Oldboy.”

Arrow Films

You will also need a strong stomach to withstand the ungodly bombshell of an ending that caps off the second (and easily finest) installment in Park’s macabre trilogy. To call it one of the greatest rug pulls—and devastating gut punches—in cinema would simply be selling it short.

Centering around a businessman (Choi Min-sik) kept captive and tortured for 15 years for no apparent reason, this perverse tale of revenge cunningly leverages our expectations to stunning effect—unleashing an unshakeable Oedipal fever dream that grabs the viewer by the throat and doesn’t let go before going straight for the jugular with an incendiary final act. Upon its release, the film ruffled feathers and sparked rarefied passions across the globe, becoming a sensation at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and turning Park into a household name in his own right. Many of its passages—from a virtuosic one-shot hallway fight scene to its earth-shattering final revelation—remain mythically embedded in our psyche to this day. Often imitated but never replicated, Oldboy retains its power almost 20 years on.

Oldboy is available to stream on Arrow Player.

1. The Handmaiden (2016)

Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee and Cho Jin-woong in “The Handmaiden.”

Magnolia Pictures

No one but Park could have pulled off this epochal tapestry brimming with political intrigue, supercharged erotica, and jaw-dropping twists to such blistering effect. Relocating Sarah Waters’ seminal crime novel Fingersmith from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden revolves around the multifaceted relationship between a wealthy Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and her two-timing, young Korean maid (Kim Tae-ri).

Tearing at the very fabric of imperialism, high nobility, and patriarchy by flipping the male gaze back on itself, The Handmaiden is one of cinema’s all-time great romances, as well as the clearest, yet most complex, expression of Park’s cinematic vision. Wrongfooting the viewer at every turn, the director pulls every narrative and visual trick up his sleeve, swaggering through the film with extreme self-assurance and unapologetic bravado. The result is an unpredictable, delectably provocative, and surprisingly tender melodrama that not only stands as the pinnacle achievement in Park’s career, but as one of the finest movies of the new millennium.

The Handmaiden is available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on Tubi.

Published on December 15, 2022

Words by Guillermo De Querol

Guillermo is a freelance entertainment writer based in Madrid, Spain. His writing and festival coverage has been published across various outlets, including Little White Lies, Taste of Cinema, Film Cred, and Certified Forgotten. When he’s not watching or writing about films, he’s probably talking about them on Letterboxd or Twitter. Guillermo hopes to continue to provide valuable features at JoySauce.