For anyone who isn’t familiar with the South Korean classical music composer and film score artist Jo Yeong-wook (written as Cho Young-wuk if spelled phonetically, 조영욱 in Korean script), you might have heard about him even if not by name. Especially if you’ve watched any films by the director Park Chan-wook, with whom he has been collaborating extensively since the early days of his career.
Jo Yeong-wook is the mastermind behind the soundtracks of Oldboy, The Handmaiden or, more recently, The Spy Gone North or Decision to Leave. His work, for reasons unknown given Hollywood’s grasp on anything talented, is largely centered around the Korean film industry. Besides his work with Park Chan-wook, he has also collaborated with many other less-known directors in the Western world but of significant success and prestige in his own country. This category includes composing for films like Nameless Gangster, New World, or the horror movie The Closet.
Born on January 1, 1962, the composer is as prolific as most film score composers of his generation, but his mastery has elevated him as the best in the East. In this article, we’ll try to showcase this with a selection of his best works, along with glimpses of his most interesting and captivating melodies. Occasionally, just as Max Richter did in Waltz with Bashir, he uses the work of others to make them his own, and that’s where he stands out and captures attention.
How Much of Oldboy Do We Owe to Jo Yeong-wook?
Before we delve into Jo Yeong-wook’s works, it’s worth touching on one of his most famous masterpieces. Despite composing the soundtracks for the entire The Vengeance Trilogy directed by Park Chan-wook, consisting of the films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the aforementioned Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I must say that, for me, the best one, musically speaking and in line with the film it accompanies, is the last of the three. However, all of them contain noteworthy pieces, not to mention the collective impact of all three as an almost perfect whole.
Now, focusing on the topic of this section: when we talk solely about the experience of watching a movie (that is, fully experiencing a cinematic journey), music can either enhance or diminish it based on its quality or how well it aligns with the spirit of the work. So, when it comes to Oldboy, it’s evident to me how Jo Yeong-wook makes it even more memorable than it already is due to its visual merits and narrative rhythm. Just recall some of the most impactful scenes from the film, and you’ll likely remember musical excerpts that catch your attention and perfectly match what you’re seeing on screen.
For instance, there’s the scene where Oh Dae-su holds a man and his dog by a tie at the edge of a rooftop. During this tense moment and the rush of newfound freedom, “Look Who’s Talking” is playing. When we understand the antagonist’s motivation behind Oh Dae-su’s ordeal, “Out Of The Past” plays. Following this revelation, the narrative concludes with “The Last Waltz,” during which the protagonist utters an “I love you” that will keep the viewer seated for a while.
With these elements in mind, I believe we can review the rest of Jo Yeong-wook’s selected works, which are highly centered on his collaboration with the renowned Korean director but also feature some unexpected appearances.
The Best Original Soundtracks by Jo Yeong-wook
It’s important to note, before we dive into our favorite soundtracks list, that the variation in the spelling of Jo Yeong-wook’s name is due to Spotify’s inconsistency with it. If you search using the most common spelling, you’ll find a part of his work, but searching for Cho Young-wuk or 조영욱 will yield different results. And although he’s often associated with K-Pop, there’s no real connection.
This is largely because it seems that the composer himself signs his works in different ways depending on the target market, with the third variation appearing when searching for The Handmaiden’s soundtrack, the second for Oldboy, and the first for playlists. Moreover, there’s a mix of Korean names, which we’re not sure if they refer to instrumentalists, composers of specific pieces, or collaboration on compositions.
With that said, let’s now proceed with our selection of favorite soundtracks composed by Jo Yeong-wook, where there’s a significant majority from the aforementioned collaboration, but over the years, there’s also a broader range of directors from the Korean film scene. Or at least the exportation of films by other Korean directors not as well-known (like the aforementioned one or the now even more famous Bong Joon Ho).
Joint Security Area (JSA) Soundtrack
In Joint Security Area (JSA), we witness the film that began to put Park Chan-wook on the map, even though he had made some feature films a few years prior. However, for Jo Yeong-wook, this was his fifth soundtrack. Much like the movie itself, the soundtrack is sober and, to a great extent, austere.
We highlight the ornamentation of “Barricade” as the standout piece, in an album that was not drawing as much attention as it would a few years later, but it already holds much of the imprint and the elements that would make a name for him (even if not everyone can spell it the same way).
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance Soundtrack
As we’re maintaining a chronological order here, there’s no particular preference in the structure of this list, although obviously, some soundtracks are more favored than others. The soundtrack for Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is undoubtedly one of them.
Compositions like “The Kind Ms. Kum-Ja” or “Pull The Trigger” are clear evidence of this. The echoes of Johann Sebastian Bach are unmistakable, and from this point onward, homages to his work will be an additional feature of his top soundtracks. String instruments take the spotlight much more in this album than in his previous work, even though both rely heavily on string arrangements.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK Soundtrack
Perhaps because it’s one of the most unique and eccentric films in Park Chan-wook’s career, Jo Yeong-wook’s soundtrack is equally unconventional. In this album, wind instruments take more prominence than string instruments. This is particularly evident in pieces like “Chumchunun Saibogu” or “Saibogu Yunggun,” both of which could easily be played at a 19th-century dance or even earlier.
If you’ve noticed that the two chosen titles as our favorites within the I’m a Cyborg soundtrack are literal romanizations of Korean and not translations into English, you’ve probably realized that they reflect how “cyborg” is written in Korean and then in Spanish as well.
For many, Thirst was a slight stumble in Park Chan-wook’s successful career, although not for Jo Yeong-wook, based on what we’ve seen. However, even in the highly recommended tracks “Bach On Radio,” “Resurrection,” “Sang-Hyun,” or the more popular “A Cute Vampire,” there’s a bit of that slightly tiresome cadence. Or perhaps not, and it’s just that my recollection of the film left me with a slightly subdued taste regarding tracks like the aforementioned, which have very little dullness, slowness, or monotony.
Nameless Gangster Soundtrack
From this point onward, we can see how the ambition of a Korean film project can be measured through the direction and compositions of Jo Yeong-wook. The craft remains the same, although adapted to each film’s tone (or imposed upon it).
Given that the story spans the 1980s and 1990s, the soundtrack also mirrors this, but it primarily adapts to the tone of being a mafia film, with rhythms that could easily emanate from Italian scenes. This is the case with “Year 1982,” “Ourselves,” or “Pedigree.” We can quickly notice the shift because, as mentioned, the music aligns with the film’s tone (or sets it).
New World Soundtrack
The main theme of New World does resemble the Jo Yeong-wook we’ve come to know, with the use of string instruments and a strong presence. This soundtrack departs from the more modern rhythms present in the previous soundtrack.
Speaking of which, what doesn’t reappear in these films and was present in Oldboy is the integration of electronic music alongside more classical composition.
The Handmaiden Soundtrack
Now, finally, we arrive at Jo Yeong-wook’s soundtrack that I’ve been listening to the most in recent years, as well as Park Chan-wook’s film that I’ve enjoyed the most—on many levels. Talking about it is always a pleasure, regardless of the main reason.
Pieces of musical craftsmanship like “My Tamako, My Sookee,” “Wedding,” “You Are My Baby Miss,” or “The Tree From Mount Fuji” turn each scene (already perfect in itself) into something brilliant. This collaboration represents the artistic pinnacle of this pair, who have blessed us with such great cinema for decades.
The Drug King Soundtrack
Two years after composing the masterpiece that is The Handmaiden, Jo Yeong-wook decided to change his approach to one more similar to what he offered in Nameless Gangster. However, perhaps due to the disappointing nature of the film, starring the always-great Song Kang-ho and Doona Bae, this soundtrack didn’t resonate with me as much of a recommendation as a divisible part of the visual work it accompanies.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil Soundtrack
We conclude our exploration of this great Korean composer’s work with the soundtrack for a 2019 film, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil. This film features other familiar faces from Asian cinema and showcases a clear ambition to transcend borders within the classic Korean action genre.
(Madrid, 1987) Novelist by vocation, SEO specialist by profession. Music lover, cinephile and reading lover, but in “amateur” mode.