A/B side VIBES. Greatest Hits from ‘80s & ‘90s
South Korea, 1997, 102’, Korean
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Lee Mu-young, Park Chan-wook
Photography (color): Lee Eun-gil
Editing: Park Gok-ji
Music: Jeon Sang-yoon
Producer: Lee Chun-yeon
Cast: Lee Gyeong-young (Ahn), Kim Min-jong (Moon), Jeong Seon-gyeong (Maria), Do Geum-bong (pawn shop owner), Kim Bu-seon (Ahn’s wife)
Date of First Release in Territory: May 24th, 1997
In the 1990s, Park Chan-wook was known in Korea as a successful and influential film critic, but a bit of a failure as a director. In 1992 he unexpectedly landed an opportunity to direct a feature film, at a time when (by his own admission) he may not have been ready for it. Titled The Moon Is the Sun’s Dream, the film was a commercial and critical flop. Five years later, Park directed Trio. This work too failed to reach a wide audience or attract critical interest. A typical reaction from viewers at the time was that it was clearly the product of a filmmaker with a lot of ideas, but that Park had failed to organize those ideas into a coherent whole.
Now, after Park has firmly established himself as one of the most important directors in Korean film history, our perspective has obviously changed, but Trio remains as puzzling as it is fascinating. It is a loose and discursive work in which we can recognize many of the traits that came to define Park’s cinema. Visually, it pre-dates the highly stylized look of Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, though Trio too contains its fair share of visual creativity. Like the protagonists of the Vengeance trilogy, this work features characters who are pushed forward by very specific goals, but who don’t know quite what to do once they have achieved those goals. If one were to watch Trio in a Park Chan-wook retrospective alongside The Handmaiden and Decision to Leave, it would suffer by comparison, but watching it alongside other Korean films produced in the 1990s gives one a better sense of how original it is.
Trio focuses on three characters (hence the title): Ahn, a depressed saxophone player who keeps attempting suicide; his friend Moon, a violent and simple-minded criminal; and Maria, a former nun with a dark past. In the wake of an impromptu robbery, the three set off together on a meandering road trip. But this is not the kind of road movie where characters discover themselves and come to understand each other in the course of their journey. Park (quoted in the book Korean Film Directors: Park Chan-wook by Kim Young-jin) is more hard-headed in exploring the question, “Who or what can people turn to when they most need help?” Family and religion are two standard answers to that question, and both are important themes in Trio. But in the end, Park says, people have nothing but themselves.
Park says he wanted Trio to be a simple and unpretentious film, but one that embodied a kind of freedom. In this sense, the story develops completely free from any pressure to conform to standard narrative structures, genre conventions, character arcs, or moral redemption. The characters are flawed, contradictory, and sometimes (but not always) likeable. And the resolution of their stories is anything but conventional. Park cited film critic Robin Wood’s observation that there are three kinds of endings in the cinema: an unhappy-happy ending, a happy-happy ending, and an ending that is neither happy or unhappy. Not one, but all three of them are featured in this film, making for another kind of “trio.”
In the three decades since he began filmmaking, Park Chan-wook (b. 1963) has established himself as one of the leading directors of South Korean cinema. His filmography includes the record-breaking hit film Joint Security Area (2000), the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy including the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Oldboy (2003); Thirst, winner of the Jury Award at Cannes; The Handmaiden, winner of a BAFTA for the Best Film Not in the English Language; and most recently Decision to Leave, which won a Best Director award at Cannes 2022.
1992 – The Moon Is the Sun’s Dream
1997 – Trio
2000 – Joint Security Area
2002 – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
2003 – Oldboy
2005 – Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
2006 – I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK
2009 – Thirst
2013 – Stoker
2016 – The Handmaiden
2022 – Decision to Leave