Blood-suckers and blood-thirsty revenge: an interview with South Korean director Park Chan-wook

May 13, 2009

South Korean director Park Chan-wook talked vampires and the movie industry at an interview with Reuters in Seoul this week as his movie “Thirst” prepares to enter the competition at the Cannes International Film Festival which opens today. Park’s movie “Oldboy” won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 and this is his first film in competition since then.

“Thirst” stars Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-vin  as a priest turned vampire and a femme fatale respectively.

Here is a transcript of the Reuters interview with Park,  translated from Korean.

 SPOILER ALERT: About halfway through this interview, Park speaks about the ending for “Thirst”

(Reuters pictures by Jo Yong-hak. Park Chan-wook at his office in Seoul and actress Kim Ok-vin)

Reuters: Your film “Oldboy” left such a deep impression with global audiences. A lot of people at Cannes are going to be comparing this film and “Oldboy”. How do you think these two films compare?

Park Chan-wook: Well, I made several other films after “Oldboy”, and now it feels like I only have dim memories of making that movie. So while shooting “Thirst”, I didn’t particularly have “Oldboy” in mind, nor did I try to make a better, or more interesting film than “Oldboy”. Of course audiences will be comparing the two. But as a person who made this film, it’s a difficult question to answer. I would like to direct the question to audiences and I’m curious about what they would say.

But if there’s a difference between “Thirst” and “Oldboy”. Audiences could watch “Oldboy” without preconceptions. But they will inevitably have various kinds of stereotypes about a vampire movie because of pre-existing film. They might watch this film with the conventional genre boundaries in mind.

Reuters: How do you think “Thirst” compares to other Western vampire movies?

Park: There are many types of vampire movies. But they in general have a certain romanticism in them, which “Thirst” lacks. Mysterious moods, sexually attractive male vampires and women who are captivated by them – those are some of the romantic aspects that are typical of vampire movies, possibly reflecting the (mood of the) time when a vampire became a popular subject matter in literature. “Thirst”, on the other hand, has more of a medical realism. It is a contradiction this movie has – there’s a clash between fantasies about vampires and the realistic approach this movie takes on as the subject matter.

Reuters: You’ve been working on this for so long. What is the fascination about the subject matter for you?

Park: First of all, I thought I could add some fresh changes to this old genre by approaching the subject matter – “vampire-ism,” so to speak – without the usual mysteriousness or romanticism but from a realistic perspective where being a vampire is sort of a disease. Also, the idea that a Catholic priest – not just anybody, and not even just an ordinary priest, but the one with “dark passion” for martyrdom to save humanity, which is actually hardly distinguishable from suicidal impulses – becomes a vampire prompted me to do this film. This priest, whose original intention was to sacrifice himself to save humanity, ends up with this completely different result. He is transformed into an existence that can only sustain itself by killing others. This new identity, and all the conflict and dilemma stemming from it, was interesting.

Reuters: When it came to a vampire movie, was it this discussion of morality that was more interesting for you, or this staple of Hollywood vampire movies, this long history of the subject matter that was more interesting for you?

Park: Needless to say – morality.

Reuters: What about moral dilemma that was interesting for you?

Park: The moments of choice that come to everybody. Whether it’s trivial or important, every choice has a moral aspect to it to a certain degree. Some are sensitive about it, while others are not. So I wanted to make audiences more conscious of the moral aspects of choices, whether large or small, by presenting a once-in-a-lifetime, life-or-death decision and exaggerating it to the extremes. I wanted people who watch this film to be keener on the moral questions presented by their decisions.
 
Reuters: You left the ending of the movie a bit ambiguous. What was the reason for that?

Park: The two main characters have two very different viewpoints at the end of the movie. The man says he will meet her in hell, and the woman says death is death and nothing more. So they have totally different perceptions about the afterlife. And it’s up to the audience to decide which is right.
 
The last scene has the woman’s feet crumbling to dust and put in the man’s large shoes. The image of it shows the two being together forever, which is the only thing resembling  a “romantic ray of light” in this movie.

Reuters: You reached a financing and distribution deal from the U.S. for this movie. What do you think about this cooperation with Hollywood, and what do you think it would do for the movie?

Park: South Korea’s movie industry has been in decline for the past several years and many investors have disappeared. And investors tend to avoid projects that are considered risky. So it was encouraging (to be cooperating with the U.S. studios) amid this atmosphere. For South Korean investors, the cooperation could reduce risk factors, and Universal could gain an early edge with the movie of a certain quality made at a relatively cheaper price than what they usually put into a Hollywood film. So this cooperation created a condition in which both sides can avoid worst scenarios. And in South Korea, it’s being used as a marketing tool to promote the movie. I was fortunate that this movie, which well could have been commercially risky, easily secured the investment. I heard South Korean audiences were pleasantly surprised to see the Universal logo at the beginning of the movie.

Reuters: The Korean title translates as “Bat”. Why the English title “Thirst”?

Park: There is a Hollywood film titled “Bat”, which even had a sequel and was quite successful in the U.S. And there’s this famous Batman series too. So I was concerned that these would give unnecessary preconceptions about the film.

Reuters: One more Hollywood question. What do you think of the Hollywood remake of “Oldboy”?

Park: I do not know anything more than you about what’s going on with the project. Steven Spielberg has been considered as a director for  the film, but since it’s such a different type of movie than his usual films, I am just guessing he might choose to be a producer rather than a director.  But anyway, whoever makes the film, I would like it to turn out as a completely new movie. I hope it wouldn’t feel too much like my “Oldboy”. I would enjoy watching the remake only if it’s a totally different movie. Watching similar movies won’t be that much fun.

Reuters: Is there any Hollywood film you want to remake as a director?

Park: Well, not really for now.

I’ve always though it’d be good to remake “Apache”. But then, it might not be a good idea to do so since it’s such a great film. People wouldn’t  really have nice things to say about my film when they compare it to the original work. When I see other directors who are remaking great films, I kind of envy their guts. I wouldn’t dare – I’m scared to be bashed. (laughs)

Reuters: What is it like to compete against Quentin Tarantino?

Park: I don’t believe directors will be coming to Cannes thinking about competing against each other. A festival is a festival, not a sports competition. Being part of the festival is what really counts. Also, getting awards depends heavily on the taste of the jury. If you think about it, too many great works have failed to get attention from juries in the past.

Besides Quentin Tarantino, there will be a lot of world-class directors at the upcoming Cannes Festival.

What’s particularly interesting about Quentin Tarantino’s new film for me this time is that it was inspired by Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen”.

Reuters: How have you changed since the vengeance trilogy?

Park: A chapter in my career seems to have turned over. I felt exhausted and a bit devastated after the trilogy, which is why I made a “cute” film: I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK. So after the trilogy and the “Cyborg”, I felt like a full-course feast has ended, and of course the trilogy was a heavy steak and the Cyborg movie was a desert. “Thirst” marks a new start for me.

Reuters: Are you working on a new project?

Park: No, nothing has been decided yet. And it’s actually the first time that I have completed one movie and don’t really have anything immediate at hand. It’s giving me mixed feelings – I kind of get antsy about not planning anything at the moment, but then at the same time, I feel relaxed. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take some rest and ponder what’s next. There are some scenarios coming from Hollywood nowadays.

Reuters: Would you think about doing a Hollywood movie?

Park: It all depends on whether I can come across a good screenplay. People might think I can write on my own, as I do here, but it’ll be difficult to start out in Hollywood with a film written by myself. So if I ever do a Hollywood movie, the script would have to be written somebody else. I guess there’s no reason for me not to do it if there is a good scenario. But I have no intention at all to do a Hollywood film just for its own sake. I am not going to do a film based on a bad scenario just to make a big Hollywood film or work with Hollywood stars.

Reuters: What do you think is the appeal of Korean films to international audiences, especially at global events?

Park: I’m not sure if I can generalise different movies from different directors, but I guess there could be two reasons. Firstly many of South Korea’s modern films do not dodge but squarely confront moral questions that other films in other countries tend to see as anachronistic. Also, South Korea has a very complicated modern history, and many local directors have gone through it all, which contributes to huge fluctuations of emotions and dramatic effects in their movies.

Reuters: What’s the most fun about directing a vampire movie?

Park: Like I’ve said, breaking away from stereotypes. It was fun to think of what changes I could make within the tradition.

2 comments

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Nice post, can’t wait to see it!

Great interview! Wondering why you spell Kim’s name like that (Ok-vin) instead of Kim Ok-bin, per Wikipedia etc.