The acclaimed Korean director gives a screenwriter talk at BFI Southbank, London…
‘I had suggested to [my younger brother] that we make movies together, be like Coen Brothers. Back when we were both university students. But he flat out said no and he left to study the arts.’ It was only much later that he said, “Well actually I want to make films,” and their partnership started with the short film Night Fishing.
Park was on entertaining form as he presented the 2011 film as part of his BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture session. Admitting that had been such a long time since he watched it last that he could ‘see it with a more objective pair of eyes, and somehow seems better than I remember.’ The film would be the first collaboration under their team name PARKing CHANce, pulled from the shared two syllables of their names, Park Can-wook and Park Chan-kyong. ‘As the name suggests, the idea behind this team is to be light-footed and very agile, and be all about guerrilla filmmaking, and be ready to try out anything new and interesting. These films are invariably are different from the short films and feature length films that I make on my own.
‘Until then I didn’t have any interest in Korean shamanism, but as an artist, the subject of shamanism was an important theme for my brother in all of his works. I wasn’t very sure, because I wasn’t interested in the subject matter of shamanism, and he got me to watch a few videos, documentaries on shamanism. You know this last shot in the film where the shaman makes away by parting this long piece of cotton. What it is, is that it’s a part of the shamanistic ritual which is to comfort the dead souls, it’s like a requiem, and it’s the climactic part of that ritual. Metaphorically, this is paving the way for the dead person’s soul so that it doesn’t float about in the netherworld, but it can follow the path to arrive at a good place.
‘So as I was watching this documentary where the shaman was using knives to cut through the long piece of cloth in this climactic moment in the ritual, I was mesmerised by this ritual. And it awakened this Korean sensibility that had been laying dormant in my conscious. When you’re watching an actual “gut” [a shamanistic ritual in Korean] and also in the climactic moment in this film, the act of using a knife to cut through this long piece of cloth, to pave this way is really a cathartic, climactic moment. The kind of catharsis that grants this poor soul who has died a tragic death redemption at long last. And for those friends and family members who have lost their beloved one, who are left behind in this world, who are gripped with sorrow, for all those people left behind they’re able to witness the dead person making this journey, paving the path finally to afterlife. And being able to witness that allows them to accept this as a goodbye, and allow them to get on with their lives. Seeing this film again, I’m reminded what art should really be, and with this I will take it with me in going on to make my next film.’
Park spoke about their upbringing, being raised as Catholics, ‘until our high school years we would go to Catholic church every Sunday, so I think we naturally cultivated this interest in religion. Of course both my younger brother and myself stopped being Catholics after high school; but being raised Catholic, that sort of childhood experience I think had a decisive influence on my making Thirst. While I’m a complete atheist, my brother, while he doesn’t subscribe to Catholicism, he remains quite interested in the spiritual world. Compared with my brother, my attitude is, as you might be able to tell from seeing this film, that I approach it metaphorically. So you might consider this film as a collaboration between an artist who has the belief in shamanism, and an artist who doesn’t believe in shamanism but takes it as a metaphor.’
Picking up on this idea of working together with his brother, moderator Ian Haydn Smith asked him to discuss this collaboration process in broader terms. ‘Well I’ve heard that my work is very unique, original, and of a singular vision, but despite what you may think, my working process is not one where I’m sitting my myself, all feverishly gripped by inspiration, and I’m being this crazy writer, the kind you see on screen, this lonely crazy writer. I can’t be further from that image. I always usually work with someone else. I always compromise and I always come to the middle. I always ask questions, and always get influenced by those close to me around me. I don’t agree with the idea that compromise or coming to the middle is in any way the enemy of art.
‘Just talking about this film, at the very beginning the idea was, because the river is very near the North and South Korean border, the idea was to have a North Korean soldier’s corpse float down the river and it’s fished by the fisherman, and they get all tangled up with these fishing lines and do a dance; to serve as a kind of a metaphor for this wish for the North and South Koreas to be united. But for the telecommunications company who suggested that this film be shot in an iPhone, and the company who have funded it – there’s no way that they’re going to like this idea, because this is still a subject matter that is quite sensitive when it comes to commercial film in Korea. Of course if I was to abuse my position that I have in the industry in Korea, and I say, “Well I’m going to do whatever I want, you guys can just go away,” I may have been able to do that, but I don’t think that anything should be like that.
‘Because the world of art is so vast, and it promises so many different possibilities, it’s just a matter of being able to find another thread of possibility. So it was our efforts to try and come up with different ideas that we have ended up with what you see on screen. I believe it ended up being a better film. There’s a writer who I collaborate with all the time, although who I collaborate with have changed over the course of time. But ever since Lady Vengeance I have worked with this co-writer on all of my films, and she is a talented female writer [Jeong Seo-kyeong]. The way I work, of course I would love if there’s a genius of a writer working side by side next to me, but all I ask for really is for there to be someone with common sense [the audience laughs]. Well of course the female writer that I work with, she’s closer to a genius writer, but I’m just lucky, because not everyone can be so lucky to have someone like her working with them! But what I want to say is that when you are writing all by yourself and you are falling into the trap of being so obsessed with your own work and being so stubborn about what you are writing, and you’re following only that single path, and you end up to go into all this self-contentment and go into self-praise of what you’ve done, become so proud of what you’ve done, that is something you should really be conscious against. So for me, well what I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as you have someone next to me, then you can talk to and say, “Well, I can go this way or that. Which way is better?” And at least for someone to give an answer to that question is enough. And someone who can read what I’ve written and say, “Well, this is a bit too weird, isn’t it?” In other words, I don’t require somebody who gives me good ideas.’
Park went on to talk about how he and Jeong collaborate. ‘We sit in the same room facing each other, across from each other, and we use one computer. Into this one computer we hook up two monitors, one for each of us, and two keyboards, one for each of us. Someone will write first. Say one line, and ask the other, “How is it?” “Well,” the other will reply and press on the backspace. And I will say, “Well, then why don’t you try and write it?” And then she writes something, “Well I like it, keep writing.” Let’s say she wrote ten lines now, and I drag and select all and delete it. So there are times like that, but if it works well, when I write one line she writes one, and vice versa. I write one word and she would write the next word. And there are more times when things go well like this. Sometimes we fight over where to put the comma and how, for ten minutes and longer. Working like this, after I’ve finished with the script and after I’ve made the film and it’s released, people come up to me and ask, “I really liked that line of dialogue, so which of the two writers wrote it?”
‘And we really cannot answer that question. In that one line of dialogue it contains a lot of different ideas and we cannot suss out which idea came from whom. It’s a result of this teamwork that has been enhanced for a number of years, and calibrated over the long period of time where we have grown accustomed to each other. But when it comes to the last stage I work by myself. I consider this stage to be very important because no matter how well you work together as a team, there is a limit to how much work you can do by way of having discussions. So the last stage of the scriptwriting process is for me to spend two to three days, or around the week even, I work strictly by myself. I would say that during this stage I’m closer to this romantic image of a writer gripped with this inspiration and writing with great fervour. I don’t even sleep, I don’t even eat, I just write. What I would change during this stage where I work alone, it’s not the structure or the basic elements of the plot, the work during this stage is mostly I would say putting the colours onto the picture. And if I was to compare it with the whole filmmaking process I could compare it with say the very end when you do the colour correction. Or if I want to compare it to a process of creating music, I would liken it to the final mixdown stage. When you compare the draft that I would finish by myself, and you compare it to the previous draft to that, you might not notice much of a difference, but what it does is it imbues a subtle amount of difference, and this is what decides the nuance of the film.
Park spoke about adapting other authors work, with his latest film The Handmaiden being an adaptation, as was Oldboy and Thirst. ‘People like to divide up my work between those that are original and those that are adapted from source material, but for me there are no difference between the two because this act of reading, be it manga or be it novel or be it a play, is in itself an experience for me. And it’s not, a book is not, doesn’t exist by the book alone, but when I go through the act of reading, it conjures up images in my head, and I have this experience. For example, as you live through your life you go through these different things, and you might have someone close to you pass away, or you might go through a divorce, there are important events in your life like this. For me it’s just like creating a story out of those experiences. Or you have other sources too, let’s say you watch the news on the telly, or you’ve read an article on the Internet, that might provide a starting point for you. But all of these are exactly the same for me: they are just all sources. So am I saying that I have no respect for the source material? I think it really depends on your definition of the word respect, because I believe that I have shown my respect towards the source material in the case of Fingersmith, and I have retained the core ideas and themes of that book in the best way I can. And that Sarah Waters, the original author, having seen the film twice and having liked the film, I think I have done a good job of respecting her work. And when I was reading Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, I got this feeling that, “Wow, I think I wrote this.”’
The audience laughs, and Smith added ‘Oh we all get that.’
‘Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, I’m not saying that I’m that good a writer. But what I was thinking was this writer, this author; he has written in the way that I would exactly like to write. When I was reading Fingersmith, as I was reading it I got all excited and was thinking that, “I wish this happened to this character, I wish that happened to the other character, I wish the story would go along this path.” You know as you watch daytime soap opera how you say, “Oh I wish he would die,” or, “I wish those two would get married.” And it just inspires so many ideas, it becomes a well for all these inspirations, so you have to come across that sort of source material for you to be able to engage with it. But what you do need to be careful, I suppose there’s a con, one bad thing about taking on source material and adapting it into a film. What it is, is that you don’t make films by yourself, so when there is a source material there’s a producer and there’s the financier, or sometimes the source material might reach the star of the film first, so what happens is that all these people read the source material and they all have different pictures in their head about what this film is going to be. And there’s no reason to say that those pictures that they have in their head will be the same, nor will it be the same as the picture that I have in my head. That’s something that you should always be careful of.’
Park also spoke about the unlikely location of his inspiration for the changes in his most famous work. ‘What’s most important for me is, and not even the character, nor is it style, for me first and foremost comes the narrative. I’m not saying that in my movie that’s the most important part, but I’m saying that’s the one thing that comes first. Shall I use the example of adapting Oldboy? Anyone in the audience who has read the original Japanese manga? There are a few, not nearly enough though. It is a great manga for sure. But the reason why the villain has come to hold a grudge against the protagonist, the reason is completely different from the manga in film. And the way that he exacts the revenge on the protagonist is also different. In the original manga these different reasons worked well for a manga, but to retain them for a film I didn’t feel it worked very well, they were too bland cinematically.
‘So it was a situation where I had to come up with completely new reasons in the method of vengeance. So I was thinking that it needed to be different, and it needed to go beyond, it needed to jump over what I found in the original manga in order for it to have meaning in this different medium. So remember, I am someone who always works through heavy conversation with different people, so in this instance too I sat down and talked to my producer about it. The question was just why this villain would incarcerate this protagonist for such a long time, and the whole conversation was about what was the grudge, why did he want to go out and kidnap this person and incarcerate him for such a long time? But we just couldn’t come up with an answer for this. I took a moment to go to the toilet, to pee, and while I was doing my business, as I was facing this white wall a thought came to me. Why did he incarcerate, but why did he let him go? Wouldn’t it be better if the villain kept him locked up until the day he died, isn’t that more of a punishment and more of a revenge, more of an agony?
‘But then it occurred to me, maybe the releasing part is the more important part for this villain. So the protagonist in the story and the audience, they’re all obsessed with the question, “Why is he locked up?” “Why am I locked up?” But maybe the more important question is, “Why am I let go?” “Why is he released?” And I thought if I change the question around a new path might present itself. Now the follow up question to that would be, okay, so if he’s released him, why after 15 years? Why not 10 years? Why not 25 years? Why specifically 15? What is that time required for? So there was this train of thought, and the train of thought led to me thinking, well 15 years might be time long enough for someone to grow older into an adult. But then who would it be? Could it be the daughter? But then why the daughter? And as you may know from seeing the film Oldboy, it led to that reveal that you see in the film, and what it answers is that very question, the very reason why the villain holds this grudge against the protagonist, his motivation. And the answer being all these incestuous elements in it.
‘So, as you know when you’re doing the business of peeing in the toilet, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time. But in this time all this train of thought led me to this destination. So right after that I rushed to the producer I was talking to, and I told him everything, I told him all these ideas. And I said, “Well I’m very sure that this will work, and this is the movie I’m going to make, but this will require a sex scene between a father and a daughter, but it should be okay because they don’t know that they are, who each other are, that this is my daughter or this is my father, so it should be okay. So you need to make a decision now. If you are not going to do this, I’m walking out from the movie.” So what I want to say is that it wasn’t a case where I wanted to tell a story about incestual relationship that I made all the way like this, that’s not the truth. In actual fact I wanted to adapt this original manga, but I wanted to make a really good story from that, and that led me to this idea.
‘But what I’m going to say next is important I think, in that once you have decided to tell a story with that sort of element in it, you have to do a proper job of it. As if I had always set out to tell a story, make a film about an incestual relationship, and I have to really dig down and go for it. For the audience seeing the film it’s not very important what order these ideas came in. And when the audience sees the completed film, and when they see the important themes and elements and subjects in it, it has to feel as if, right from the get go, the film was all about that. And you should really aspire to then go. And in this film two things were important, one was that element of incest, and the second is the other thing that I was talking about before. In order to get the right answer, you have to ask the right question.’
The BFI-BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture with Park Chan-wook took place on 22nd October 2016 at BFI Southbank.
You can read the full transcript on BAFTA’s website.
Oldboy is out now on 4K Digital Download, and will be released on DVD, 2-disc Blu-ray & Limited Edition 4-disc Blu-ray box set 0n 7th October . The 2-disc and 4-disc editions include the new feature-length documentary Old Days: An Oldboy Story. The 4-disc set completes Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, both pack with extras including new features, commentaries and the fade-to-B&W version of Lady Vengeance.
Thanks to BAFTA. All images © BAFTA.