Dialogue: Park Chan-Wook
EmptyAfter five years of presenting the most gruesome and gorgeous violations, both physical and emotional, Park Chan-wook surprised a lot of people with his sixth feature film, "I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay." It looked almost cute. Or like a romantic comedy (albeit in Park's uniquely offbeat style). Critics scratched their heads, audiences puzzled, and just three weeks later "Cyborg" was out of South Korean movie theaters, replaced by animated dinosaur skeletons and simpler holiday fair.
Park, however, is making no apologies. Whether huge boxoffice successes ("Joint Security Area," "Oldboy", "Lady Vengenace") or commercial disappointment ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Cyborg") the colorful and philosophical director remains dedicated to presenting his unique vision of the human soul.
Park earned a degree in philosophy at the Jesuit-run Sogang University in Seoul, coming of age in the tumultuous 1980s. Although student demonstrations against the military government of the time were a major part of campus life then, Park preferred his studies. He spent several years as a movie critic before trying his hand as an assistant director in 1988 on the movie "Kkamdong," then directing the seldom-seen "Moon Is ... Sun's Dream" in 1992.
The director became a big name in South Korea when "Joint Security Area" broke boxoffice records in 2000 (and was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2001). "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" was too extreme for mainstream audiences in Korea, but won much acclaim around the world. His career jumped to new heights in 2004 when his shockingly and beautifully violent "Oldboy" won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and "Lady Vengeance" similarly impressed in 2005.
As Park tells it, his latest film came to him in a dream. In his sleep, he envisioned a girl whose body was a living weapon, firing bullets from her fingers and spitting empty shells from her mouth. He also wanted to create a lighter film after the sturm und drang of his "violence trilogy," something that his young daughters might be able to see. The result was his latest movie, "I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay," the story of a two young people who meet in an insane asylum. The woman, Young-goon (Im Soo-jeong) thinks she is a combat cyborg, and refuses to eat human food, preferring to power herself off of batteries instead. The young man, Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon, a popular singer known by his stage-name Rain), is anti-social, convinced he can steal people's identities, and afraid that he could completely vanish one day.
The Hollywood Reporter: What are the main ideas in "I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay"?
Park Chan-wook: I hope to cause audiences to ask themselves questions after watching the film. Such as "What is the purpose of existence?" and "Is life really necessary?" The female character, Young-goon, is always wondering why she was born and what she should do to become a valuable being. What is my purpose? When you see a mass-produced product, they have clear, obvious purposes. So she thinks she wants to be a machine, because machines have a purpose and a manual. She wants to find the reason she is needed in this world, her value. But she cannot find that, so she becomes ill. For Il-soon, the male character, he is empty inside, worried he might simply disappear into nothingness. People want to be valuable, so when the audience sees the film, I want them to begin to think about such things. Is existence necessary? You don't need to have a big purpose, like saving the world or anything like that. The purpose of existence is existence itself.
THR: You said that one reason for making this movie is that you wanted to work with young people. Why is that, and how did it go?
Park: I expected them to be very cheerful and fresh, cute, or something like that. But they weren't. As a joke used to all them aeneulgeuni a young person who behaves like an old person. But they were okay and very thoughtful. I used to say to them, even Song Gang-ho and Choi Min-shik were more cheery than you two.
THR: Did you do a lot of research into mental illness and mental hospitals?
Park: I did some research, but I did not want my movie to be just a copy of reality. I wanted to put my ideas and ideals into the story. Make it more free and clean and fresh. So the mental hospital is more like my ideal of what a mental hospital should be like. Often in other movies about this subject, when setting is a hospital, atmosphere is usually oppressive and closed. The doctors are evil tyrants. But that kind of description is also different from reality because not all doctors bad. It is just another extreme stereotype.
THR: You used your usual cinematographer, Jung Jung-hoon, and art director, Ryu Seong-hee, on this film. But you also shot on HD for the first time. How did that make filming different this time?
Park: It's very popular these days to have strong contrasts. But I wanted weaker contrast, which I thought was more suitable for this subject. Instead of using very strong colors, I tried to use pastel tones. Also, most of this movie was shot on sets, so it was more controllable. This was the closest movie I have made to what I envisioned originally.
THR: In your "violence trilogy", there was plenty of violence, but it often ended ambivalently. "Cyborg" has much less shocking content, however it still features similar ideas about violence, guilt and tragedy. Why are these themes so central to your storytelling?
Park: My adolescence during the 1970s, and my college years during the '80s gave me such ideas. In a coercive, totalitarian nation, an individual's life is intertwined with the sense of guilt that comes from the frequent violence and not being able to resist it. Violence is pain, and when people use violence they destroy themselves from the inside. Violence is a power that moves the world. It is not desirable, but it is important. Art and mass media, they do not really cover violence. Not action movie pretend violence, but violence itself. I wanted to show how violence makes people behave in a certain way and how it hurts people. I wanted to look into it very precisely.
THR: When "Oldboy" was selected for Cannes, you said that you were really surprised, that it was something you "never dreamed of." Since then, you have made quite a name for yourself on the international film festival circuit. How has your work changed since becoming so well know internationally?
Park: One great aspect of becoming internationally famous is that it enables me to keep a collection of DVDs on the titles I've directed in different versions from all over the world. Apart from that, there has been no significant change in my life. I've been living like I always used to from the moment I started directing. I strive to make films that are unique, but while doing so, I've never neglected the commercial aspect of filmmaking. Whether they were successful or not, I have always tried to make films that did well at the boxoffice.
THR: Your production company will be working with Bong Joon-ho soon on his "Snow Train" (from the comic book "La Transperceniege"). Why did you want to produce a film by director Bong? How would you compare your filmmaking style?
Park: Director Bong Joon-ho should not limit himself to just Korean film circles. I hope to help him reach the broader market by lending a hand in producing the multi-language film, "Snow Train". As for our movies, the difference would be that he likes to feature 'half-witted' characters, while I like to feature 'strange' characters.
THR: Any plans for you to give Hollywood a try?
Park: I've been reviewing countless stories and projects for the three years since "Old Boy," but I have yet to find one that I can feel attached to. Whether it's Hollywood or Bollywood or even the space station, I would obviously be thrilled to be there, only if I came across a good project or story. But I won't give any project a try just because it'll help me reach Hollywood.
THR: Anything you want to say about "Evil Live," your next movie?
Park: I feel like it is my destiny to make a vampire film. It feels like a natural direction. People around me nodded in agreement when I first told them about the project.
THR: What else would you like to say about your future plans?
Park: My plan is to cut down on the number of interviews that I'm being offered.