Park was born and raised in Seoul, and studied philosophy at Sogang University, where he started a cinema-club called the "Sogang Film Community" and published a number of articles on contemporary cinema. Originally intending to be an art critic, upon seeing Vertigo he resolved to try to become a filmmaker. After graduation, he wrote articles on film for journals, and soon became an assistant director of films like Kkamdong, directed by Yu Yeong-jin, and Watercolor painting in a Rainy Day, directed by Kwak Jae-yong (My Sassy Girl).
His debut feature film was The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream (1992), and after five years, he made his second film Trio. Park's early films were not successful at the box office, and he pursued a career as a film critic to make a living.
In 2000, Park directed Joint Security Area, which was a great success both commercially and critically, even surpassing Kang Je-gyu's Shiri as the most-watched film ever made in South Korea. This success made it possible for him to make his next film more independently - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the result of this creative freedom.
After winning the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for the film Oldboy, a journalist asked, "in your film, why is the vengeance repeating?". According to Park, he decided to make three consecutive films with revenge as the central theme. Park said his films are about the utter futility of vengeance and how it wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone involved.
In a May 2004 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Park listed Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Kurt Vonnegut as being influences on his career.
His so-called Vengeance Trilogy consists of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. It was not originally intended to be a trilogy. Lady Vengeance was distributed by Tartan Films for American theatrical release in April 2006.
Despite extreme violence in his films, Park is regarded as one of the most popular film directors in Korea, with three of his last five feature films (Joint Security Area, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) all drawing audiences of over 3 million. This makes Park the director of three films in the thirty all-time highest-grossing films in South Korea. (9th, 29th, 26th respectively as of January 2007).
In addition to being a film director and screenwriter, Park is also a film critic with several published editions to his name. None have been translated into English as of yet.
American director Quentin Tarantino is an avowed fan of Park. As the head judge at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, he personally pushed for Park's Oldboy to be awarded the Palme d'Or (the honor eventually went to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11). Oldboy garnered the Grand Prix, the second-highest honor in the competition. Tarantino also regards Park's Joint Security Area to be one of "the top twenty films made since 1992."
In 2006, he was the member of official section jury at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival.
In February 2007, Park won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival. The award, named after the festival's founder and in praise of movies opening up new perspectives, went to Park for his film, I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK.
In 2009, Park directed his first vampire film, Thirst starring Song Kang-ho which won Prix du Jury along with Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. He considered directing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but ultimately turned it down.
In 2011, Park said his new fantasy-horror film Paranmanjang (Night Fishing) was shot entirely on the iPhone. The film was co-directed with Park's younger brother, Park Chan-kyong who never had any experience on film directing. It was nominated for Berlinale Shorts during the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, which won Golden Bear for Best Short Film.
In 2013, Park directed his first English-language film, Stoker. He said he learned to accelerate the production process and completed filming in 480 hours. Although Park does speak English, he used an interpreter on set. On why the script attracted his attention, Park said: "It wasn't a script that tried to explain everything and left many things as questions, so it leads the audience to find answers for themselves and that's what I liked about the script... I like telling big stories through small, artificially created worlds." On March 2, 2013, Park appeared on a panel discussion about the movie Stoker, held at the Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian's Museums of Asian Art.
In 2014, Park directed a short film commissioned by luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna, co-written by himself, Ayako Fujitani, Chung Chung-hoon and Michael Werwie, scored by Clint Mansell, and starring Jack Huston and Daniel Wu, and which previously screened at the Rome International Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival.
In September 2014, it was announced that Park would adapt Fingersmith, a historical crime novel by Sarah Waters. The film entered production in mid 2015 and ended on October 31, 2015. That film ended up becoming The Handmaiden and premiered in competition to rave reviews at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where Artistic Director Seong-hie Ryu won the Vulcain Prize for the Technical Arts and also where it got nominated for both the Palme d'Or and Queer Palm; the film also won Best New Actress (Tae-ri Kim), The Buil Readers' Jury Award and Best Art Directin (Seong-hie Ryu) at the 2016 Buil Film Awards.
In October 2014, it was announced that Park had signed on to direct the sci-fi body-swap film, Second Born.
* Directed with his brother Park Chan-kyong