Park Chan-wook: an exclusive interview
We catch up with Chan-wook at the UK premiere of his latest film Thirst, and meet the man in person…
Curzon Soho cinema, in London’s West End, and Park Chan-wook is here to unveil his latest film Thirst just over a week before it’s UK cinematic release. Hard to believe, but it was barely over three and a half years ago that Park was in this very cinema to introducing Lady Vengeance.
Since then there’s been I’m A Cyborg, But It’s Okay, his visually stunning, though tepidly received romantic comedy, and two screenplays for other directors – A Boy Who Went to Heaven and Crush and Blush – but Park beams as he introduces the film, glowing from the praise heaped on his latest work from critics and audiences alike, including a shared Jury Prize at this years Cannes Film Festival. And tonight’s crowd is no less appreciative.
‘The film is a horror, but it’s also a comedy, and I know how well UK audiences appreciate my sense of humour,’ Park announces to the audience with the help of a translator. For a film so publicly trailed as a horror it sounds a little odd, but Park’s streak of black humour, present throughout his work but more obvious in I’m A Cyborg is equally near the surface in Thirst. His tale of a Roman Catholic priest Sang-hyun – played with aplomb by Kong Sang-ho – turned into a vampire finds the unpleasant, shocking and comical in his condition.
Later in conversation during the Q&A following the film, he reveals that has a lot to do with his personality. In real life he can’t stand long periods of awkward silence, preferring to break that with humour. His favourite kind of humour is one mixed with other, mainly negative, emotions, like fear, sorrow or even pain.
For Park there’s humour to be found in the dilemma his Catholic priest faces by not only wanting to keep hold of his religious faith and morality, but also create a new life for himself as a vampire.
The initial idea for Thirst had been a long time in gestation. One night some 10 years ago he’d written two short sequences from a story. The first was how a priest became a vampire, and the second was how the priest turned a woman into a vampire. But at that point he had no idea how they would meet, or who the woman would be.
These rough sketches were put into a draw for several years, until by chance he read Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, and suddenly he realised the plot of the novel could fit with his earlier idea, and the project began in earnest. (Indeed, when he spoke here all those years ago, he mentioned that his next film would probably ‘explore religion, God and the devil’, suggesting that the themes of this movie where something he wanted to bring to the screen – if he’d not already begun thinking about the film itself.)
Brought up as a Catholic, he told of how priest visited his family and told them he would make a great priest. Park’s immediate reaction was to stop going to church – he was so afraid of what he would have to give up, unable to marry and having to live so much of your life alone. But after that moment he became curious about the notion of a priest, and it gave him an idea of what kind of private life they would have, and the sort of temptation and desire they’d have to avoid.
He distinctly remembers how when he was very young be became afraid during mass, as the ceremony of transubstantiation the bread that represents the flesh of Christ and the wine representing the blood of Christ reminded him of more of cannibalism and vampirism respectively. So the notion that priest would not only be drinking a symbol of Christ’s blood for the redemption of humanity, but as merely food for himself, became a natural progression of that idea, and captured his imagination.
But, as one member of the audience asks, was he trying to make judgements about those without faith? The behaviour of Tae-joo, the priest Sang-hyun’s lover who is turned into a vampire, seems in comparison to be presented as immoral. For Park it’s more a question of exploring the consequences of their actions. In reality, Sang-hyun is quite a pitiful character, still hanging onto his faith while consumed by blood lust, yet Tae-joo grasps hold of her new existence to enjoy far more freedom, even enjoying murder.
In that sense the priest’s character far more closely reflects his own. He can be seen as pathetic, he laughs, or you can see how difficult is for him to make the choice because he cannot give up both sides. Despite this Park is more sympathetic towards him, as he finds this dilemma more human.
Park seems bemused by the numerous Vampire films and TV programmes in popular culture right now. He grumbles that at US Press Conferences, for instance, they kept mentioning True Blood. In fact, at the time he was far too busy actually making Thirst to notice the genre’s popularity, he hadn’t even seen Let The Right On In? And Twilight? Park makes an extremely long ‘er’ sound, before replying democratically that his daughter loves it.
But had he any influences in making the film? Park prefers not to call it an influence, but one film he had in mind was Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, an intensely bizarre and surreal horror from the 1980s. Initially the lead actress who plays Tae-joo, Kim Ok-vin, looked for direction on how she should play her role, and Park pointed her in the direction of the film and they both loved the lead actress Isabella Adjani’s performance. As homage, Tae-joo wore Adjani’s blue dress in the final scene.
Asked why nearly all his films seem to involve a relative innocent who is driven to do horrendous things, Park reveals he find the transformation fascinating. For him it’s about the symbolic death of a character, perhaps their daughter is kidnapped, as in Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, or maybe they are imprisoned for 15 years, following what happens next is a big part of the experience.
Does it bother him that some of the cultural nuances and references of his films don’t translate? For instance, Mi-do’s last words in Oldboy were deliberately intended to keep his Korean audiences on the edge of their seats: the first syllable oh the word she utters could be Father, or a respectful term for a middle-aged man– which will she say? Park doesn’t seem too worried if some of his subtleties are lost in translation, though. He realises how difficult they can be to translate in the first place. And he’s found some scenes have been made funnier, or given deeper meaning in their interpretation – so the film becomes another experience altogether.
Perhaps it was that early yearning to be a film critic, but Like some of the finest directors of his generation, such as Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro, Park is hardly a director you could accuse of having little to say – such is his desire to engage with his audience.
Two days later it’s my chance for a one-on-one with Park at the Korean Cultural Centre, a slightly daunting prospect even considering all the directors I’ve spoken to in the past, since none of them has quite such a well-known profile in the West. Just what should I ask him?
For Park Chan-wook it’s been an exhausting few days on the promotional treadmill. Screenings, interviews, Q & As, all the things you need to do when promoting a cinematic release in the UK. When I first enter the room Park is dutifully signing some 50 DVD covers of his previous films as a competition prize. Ah, the glamour of it all…
Having answered so many questions about the film, I ask him, is there anything he wished someone had asked him? (Yes, I know! It comes in handy having a trained journalist as a wife sometimes!)
Park notes few people have asked about Mrs Ra, who was an important part of why he combined Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin with his original vampire story. In his original story the priest priest Sang-hyun turns the woman into a vampire in the bathroom, and as he kills her he eyes wander towards the bathroom mirror and he sees his own reflection and realises what he’s become. But this device felt far to clichéd for Park to use, so instead replaced that mirror with Mrs Ra.
Even though she becomes a paraplegic, we see her all the way through the film, reflecting the true monster that priest Sang-hyun has become. And ultimately, when Sang-hyun lies himself and Tae-joo in front of her in the final scene, this is the most he can do for forgiveness from her.
Ultimately Ra is like a ray from the sunrise, part of your daily life, but something that can be brutal to vampires like Sang-hyun and Tae-joo. Even the mere act of her gazing can itself be cruel and brutal. At the same time she could also be the eyes of the audience.
Her name was adapted from the original Mother Raquin character, but the funny thing is that in the end it’s also like Sun Ra – Park’s favourite Jazz musician.
Another important part of the movie people don’t tend to ask about is his use of music. He made a point of using songs by 50s Korean pop stars Nam In Soo and Lee Nan Young. That music sounds very strange now, especially to the younger generation, which is why Tae-joo has become so sick of it. Yet despite the possibly negative context with which he’s has used it in the film, Park believes these are great musicians and hope his use will bring them contemporary recognition, even including three complete songs on the soundtrack album (which he recommends, plug plug).
(I seem to uncovered a goldmine, but before I get a chance to feel too smug about my success of my rather open ended opener I get a tap on the shoulder and a request to make the next question my last. Yikes!)
To my mind the film seems like quite a departure from his previous work, both visually and in terms of narrative. In effect, it’s much more about the story itself. I ask him if that true?
He explains that his previous film, I’m A Cyborg, But It’s Okay, was the closest he’d ever been to completing a film as he’d original intended it. The only problem was that because he had complete creative control he ended up feeling more like a designer than a director, he says with more than a touch of regret.
This time around he wanted the approach to be very simple and stripped back, avoiding any fantasy elements – due to the subject matter – and not playing about with the timeframe as he’s been known too – so there are no ‘revealing’ flashbacks.
He makes this clear from the opening scene, starting with a white wall and door with only a shadow from a tree. The lead character literally walks onto the screen, and right from the start you can tell his vocation from his clothes. This is Park’s declaration of intent to his audience, that the film will follow a minimalist narrative.
So a chance for one last cheeky question? Something I’ve always wondered about the segment he wrote and directed for Three… Extremes called ‘Cut’. In it he cast his old friend (and co-star of JSA) Lee Byung-hun as a director whose biggest crime seems to be he’s just too nice. Is that, ahem, based on anyone?
Park keen to make sure the translator passes on that it’s not based on him right away. It would be silly to create a movie about a director and have it be anything like him. That character soon reveals that he has a dark side, which is nothing like Park. However, on the surface he appears very nice, and he guesses that is like himself.
(I’m not entirely convinced…)
One thing that is true is that it’s well-known in Korea that Park’s sets are very pleasurable and enjoyable. ‘Fact!’, the translator tells me, earnestly.
And so I depart with a promise that my (many) remaining questions will be answered via email in time for the DVD release in the New Year. Here’s hoping, fingers crossed…
To be continued…
Thirst is released in UK cinemas on Friday 16 October, with a DVD and Blu-ray release early in the new year from Palisades Tartan.
Thanks to Richard and Paul from The Associates, Hugh from Palisades Tartan, and of course Park Chan-wook for his time.