Short Starts presents a weekly short film from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
The new film Stoker represents a departure for South Korean director Park Chan-wook. It’s not only his first English-language feature but also his first time directing a screenplay written by someone else (Wentworth Miller, in this case). Whether this is a new phase in his career or just a one-off remains to be seen, but it’s certainly something new.
Holding that in mind, let’s look back on another moment of transition in Park’s career. His first feature, The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream, premiered in 1992 but break-out success didn’t come until 2000’s Joint Security Area. In between he directed 1997’s Saminjo (totally unavailable outside of South Korea) and one darkly comic short film that is probably his best-regarded early work.
Judgement was made in the wake of the 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse, the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history. Due to gross negligence and major structural flaws, the building fell in on itself, killing 502 people. The ensuing legal settlement involved over 3,000 cases, and according to the radio clip at the beginning of the short, the payout to the families of victims was $200,000 each.
With characteristically bleak spirit, Park set Judgement entirely in a morgue. There’s one last victim of the tragedy who has yet to be claimed, a young woman whose identity had been obscured by the physical damage of the collapse. The government believes they have finally found her parents, a middle-aged couple whose daughter ran away from home years before. Yet as the body is being moved, a morgue employee suddenly claims that the corpse is that of his daughter, who had also disappeared. With 200 grand in compensation money hovering over the proceedings, drama ensues.
Judgement is a miniature triumph of genre blending. The black and white aesthetics and air of criminality drip with a pulpy noir sensibility, but every once in a while it tumbles into the ridiculous, perhaps as a satire of Korean soap opera. Enclosed in the morgue, the script has the character of an existentialist work of theater with an acerbic view of society. Like Sartre, if he ever used a corpse for physical comedy. Finally, Park pulls the rug out from under his own style for the last few minutes, twisting his characters and his audience into a concise and revelatory ending.
Here it is! And as a bonus, watch 2011’s Golden Bear winner Night Fishing below. Co-directed by his brother, Park Chan-kyong, it engages with both color and death in a similar spirit to Judgement, despite the passage of well over a decade of Park Chan-wook’s evolution as a filmmaker.