Celluloid Diaries: Interview with Park Chan-wook

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview with Park Chan-wook

park chan-wook

Ever since Park Chan-wook won the Grand Prix at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival for Oldboy, he put South Korea on the cinematographic map for many movie lovers. Loyal fans from all over the world praised his films for their unique aesthetic and visual poetry, excessive violence, and power to evoke strong emotions. Several of his films became international sensations, including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Lady Vengeance (2005), I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK (2006), Thirst (2009), and Stoker (2013). His latest, the period thriller The Handmaiden (2016), is the best-selling Korean film of all time and was sold to over 100 countries before even hitting the Cannes Film Festival.

I spoke with Park Chan-wook during his stay in Brussels where he was the guest of honor of the 35th Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF).

You started your career during the Korean New Wave. How did this help you reach success as a filmmaker? Or, because you're one of the key players of that New Wave, do you think you boosted Korean cinema instead?

My first two movies didn't do well commercially. That's why I worked as a film critic so I could buy diapers for my child. In the year 2000, my film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area was released, and at the same time, two other filmmakers, Kim Ji-Woon and Bong Joon-Ho, emerged. We stimulated each other and we boomed to what is now called the renaissance of Korean Cinema.

Time flies, and now it's not the New Wave anymore. It has been transformed. It's the Old Wave. These days, there are a lot of talented, new filmmakers. My role today is to support this young generation of directors.

However, I think Korean contemporary history made our cinema strong. Korean people are living this hard, roller coaster life. They are dealing with both extreme happiness and bittersweet feelings. That's why the characters of Korean films have such strong emotions.

interview park chan wook

Many of your movies are international successes. Do you make films with foreign audiences in mind or do you only focus on the Korean public?

At first, I try to make a film for Korean spectators, especially the future audiences of Korea, the next generation. Only then do I wonder if foreign spectators will be enjoying my films. The only thing I don't do is Korean humor. Humor belongs to a certain culture. It can't be shared. Also, I don't think Korean humor is funny. That's why I never use it. But whatever I do, I need to be inspired. Lots of different sources influence me, such as comic strips, movies, novels, and personal experiences. It doesn't matter if I wrote the script or someone else. As long as it's my experience, there's no difference.

When you say you make your movies with a Korean audience in mind, I suppose you don't include North Koreans?

Indeed. North Korean spectators will never see my films and vice versa. But, you know, we still feel like we're brothers and sisters with North Korean people. We hope that someday we'll have a unification again. Although the South Korean people have some kind of affection toward North Korean people, we believe the government of North Korea isn't great at all. I wonder if we can have a unification in the near future.

How did your American movie Stoker do at the Korean box office compared to your other movies?

Korean film industry is very particular. They're fascinated by Korean actors, actresses, directors, and stories. Even though I'm quite famous in Korea, the result of Stoker at the box office was not great at all, maybe because I made an American story with American actors and actresses.

I learned a lot from working in America, though. All the actors and crew, including the superstar Nicole Kidman, were sacrificing to help me, and I was 100% satisfied with their help. The studios are extremely powerful and there are often conflicts and discussions, but I think Stoker is a much better film now than if I would have made that film entirely by myself, without any influence from the studio. Even though it was hard to endure, collaborating with a big studio was productive and it helped me a lot. It was a very positive experience for me.

Is it true that Josh Brolin called you to ask for your permission before starting the remake of Oldboy?

I talked to Josh Brolin several times. He asked for my blessings, so I told him good luck. It was strange to see the remade version of my own film because there are many familiar elements and sequences, but the film is made in America, with Americanized situations, and English-speaking actors and actresses. I felt contradicted. And then I must say that I must be the spectator who enjoyed the film the most.

park chan-wook film festival
park chan-wook interview

Do you think that the major companies coming into Korea, such as Warner Bros. And Netflix, provide a new creative boost to the industry?

I think it's a bit too early to talk about Netflix because it's an entirely new platform and we need a little bit more time. But our experience with Warner Bros. Korea was quite positive up until now. Big companies invested a lot in The Wailing, The Age of Shadows, and Bong Joon-Ho's Okja, which were quite successful. Of course, Korean production companies invested their own budgets, but it wasn't enough. That's why American production companies invested much more. Thanks to them, we could have these good films that we wouldn't have without this big, international production companies.

I'm curious about your favorite Korean movies. Which ones do you recommend?

If I say only one, I must say film director Kim Ki-Jong, who unfortunately passed away. He has made a film which is called The Housemaiden.

Also, I'm currently participating in the remastering and the restoration an old film called The Last Witness, directed by Lee Do-Yong, who's still alive.

The visual look of your films is a huge part of their appeal. Can you explain how you work with your regular cinematographer, Chung-Hoon Chung, and how much he influences your style?

Ever since I made Oldboy, I worked with the same cinematographer. Even though we are not co-writing the script, we talk a lot about the story, and from the step of making the storyboard, we are always together. He just finished the shooting the film It, which is based on the novel by Stephen King. It must be very well made if it's him, so you can really wait for that film.

park chan-wook


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