Q&A: Park Chan-wook


CANNES -- Park Chan-wook is the elder brother of a generation of contemporary Korean directors who took up filmmaking after a period in which the nation's classic films were unavailable. Weaned on videos from the most diverse sources, they took what they wanted and, with the lifting of political controls in the late 1990s, began again. Park's second feature, the 2000 thriller "Joint Security Area," was visually and politically intriguing and came to represent what the "Korean new wave" was all about. Park's "revenge trilogy" was even more stunning. It included "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," a stomach-churning exercise in abasement, and "Oldboy," a stylish and bloody effort that has become the kind of cult movie that still plays on at video clubs around the world. As elder brother, Park is used to setting precedents -- "Thirst" not least for being the first completed Korean movie with Hollywood backing. The helmer recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter contributing editor Asia Patrick Frater to talk about working in a new genre and the strength of this year's Korean presence on the Croisette.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What is a vampire movie doing In Competition in Cannes? In fact, is "vampire movie" really the right term?

Park Chan-wook: This is one of the questions that trouble me the most. As soon as one starts to classify a film by genre, whatever it may be, people start to have unnecessary preconceptions. Furthermore, that kind of definition cannot embrace the whole film. For instance, if I said "Thirst" is a "vampire romance," most people will think of "Interview With the Vampire," or "Bram Stoker's Dracula," even though the romanticism found in those films has nothing at all to do with "Thirst." Also, no one will be able to conceive of the religious issues that are embedded in "Thirst." But if I really had to come up with an answer, I cannot think of any other than "vampire romance." If there is a more accurate way of classifying it, please let me know.

THR: Is "Thirst" a return to the highly structured, beautifully lit violence of your revenge trilogy after a career diversion in the "Three Extremes" segment and "I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK"?

Park: "I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK" was like a sweet dessert served at the end of a full course meal. I feel that the film marks the end of a chapter in my career. Would that mean that "Thirst" is the first film in a new chapter? I'm not sure yet. I think perhaps "Thirst" is a film that is like getting the bill after you've finished the dessert.

THR: Blood, priests and illicit longing sounds like a pretty sexy movie -- and classic vampire fare -- what new elements are you bringing to the party here?

Park: Rather than bringing new elements, there are more elements that I took out: elongated canine teeth, gorgeous male vampires with clear-cut features, bats, the old castle with a hunchback servant, mirrors, fear of garlic and the cross, the stake through the heart ... gone.

THR: You've cited Hitchcock, Bergman and Polanski as your cinematic influences and Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Kurt Vonnegut as intellectual influences. Which are most at play in "Thirst"?

Park: Out of those people you mentioned, you might think that Vonnegut is an unexpected inclusion in the list. He is my favorite contemporary writer, but it does not seem that he has directly influenced my films. Actually, those names have come up during interviews with the Western media. But when I mention Korean names, they tend not to put them in print. If I can take this opportunity to reiterate, director Kim Ki-young has been a great influence to me. "Thirst" is a particularly good example of that. Anyone who has seen his film "The Housemaid," will be able to tell straight away.

THR: I've heard that you scare easily. Do you believe in the existence of vampires?

Park: Back in the days when I was poor, I watched a lot of horror films on a very old, small TV. They were on these VHS tapes that had been taped over a number of times and the picture quality was terrible. At the time I thought I was a horror film fan. But then came the age of DVDs, and my TV was replaced with a big new one. Only then did I realize that I scare easily. Ever since, I have not been able to watch horror films. Vampires are a metaphor for all kinds of exploiters. I certainly do believe in the existence of exploiters.

THR: Much of the action takes place in a single room. It this another visit to Oh Daesu's prison, Lady Vengeance's lock-up or the mental asylum from "Cyborg?" What is it with you and incarceration?

Park: It's not a single room, but a single house, and in "Thirst," incarceration is psychological rather than physical. It is probably true that I like the motif of incarceration. That's because these places are miniaturized universes. These are the spaces where existential circumstances that people face are more clearly revealed. Also, it saves on the budget to shoot on sets like these.

THR: "Thirst" is one of four Korean films in Official Selection. What does this tell you about the current state of Korean cinema, which has taken such a brutal plunge in the past two years?

Park: Including the Classics and the Short Film sections, there are total of 10 Korean films that made the official and unofficial selection at Cannes. The number of Korean films going to Cannes is the biggest in the history of Korean cinema this year. The most notable aspect of the recent trends in Korean cinema is the rise of independent films, which also can be noticed in Cannes selection. We hope that this year's Cannes will become the festival from which we see a reversal of the current mood in the Korean film industry.

THR: This was the first Korean film where a U.S. studio has had a major financial stake from a pre-production stage. What influence did that have on your movie?

Park: The domestic audience who for the first time saw a Korean film with a Universal logo found it very interesting. Some thought it awkward, and some were delighted to see it. For myself, I must say I'm very honored to have "Thirst" internationally distributed by the high-end boutique Focus Features. Other than that, there was no influence on my film.

THR: Does it make you more or less likely to work in Hollywood? We know you were offered "The Evil Dead."

Park: The issue of Universal's investing in "Thirst" doesn't seem to have too much to do with the issue of my going to work in Hollywood. The issue of whether I make a Hollywood film or not, is only related to the question of whether I can find a good enough script. Unless I have in my hand a script that is suitable for an English-language film (regardless of whether I or someone else wrote it), I won't be working on a Hollywood film. But if a script like that came my way right now, I would be prepared to go straight from Cannes to L.A. without stopping home in Seoul.