Park Chan-wook is a Korean filmmaker with A-list festival honours, successful breakout films, English language Hollywood remakes in train, and his first English-language feature under his belt.
He was also the least popular of the international guests at the recent Big Screen Symposium. It was sometimes difficult to work out how much of that was down to everything he said needing to go through a translator, how much to his personality.
It was a shame, given how hard Rob Sarkies and translator Wonjo Jeong worked to keep the sessions moving forward and to inject some energy into them.
For someone who makes films (and therefore, one assumes, has some interest in audience response) Park sometimes appeared uninterested in anything beyond pursuing his own agenda.
Park’s session on directing began with a near half-hour explanation of a scene, which (while interesting) turned out not to be one of the two scenes the session would dissect. In his In Conversation session, he responded to several questions with answers that have been well-honed through other interviews – especially about Stoker.
He was, nonetheless, sometimes entertaining.
In the week of rehearsals with the cast of Stoker, he told his actors, “If there any arguments to be had, let’s have them now. We’ll be screwed if we have to have them on set through a translator.”
Park ran through his initial attraction to film, from seeing an unsubtitled VHS copy of Vertigo while at university, to the large number of Hitchockian references (especially to Shadow of a Doubt) in Stoker.
He also cited Kim Ki-young’s 1960 Hanyo/The Housemaid as another strong influence, for its surrealistic approach to telling the story of a housemaid who seduces her married employer. The film (often cited as presenting one of the earliest cinematic examples of female rape) drew strong reactions from Korean audiences – including death threats against the actress who played the title role.
As he has in other interviews, Park explained that he had consciously tried to expunge some of the Hitchcockian references from the Stoker script prior to production. Despite that, when looking back after completing the film, Park found he’d introduced more references to Hitchcock’s work than he’d been aware of.
While Park’s explanation was reasonable, it didn’t really marry too well with other statements, including ones about the amount of preparation he does for films – storyboarding “99% of sequences” especially the intercut scenes which appear in many of his films.
Sarkies asked Park about a particularly famous fight scene in Oldboy in which one protagonist takes on numerous villains, aided by the fight taking place in a narrow corridor.
Park responded that he “doesn’t like an aesthetic approach to violence for its own sake”, preferring to focus on the emotions driving the character (isolation or loneliness in the case of Oldboy).
The fight in a narrow corridor is hardly a new idea, although since Oldboy it’s been much-used in Korean productions, often with more than a hint of homage to the Oldboy scene. Most recently it’s been recreated in 2013 TV show Mujeongdoshi/Heartless City.
Park noted some of the peculiarities of life and filmmaking in Korea, not least the fact that the country has been at war (at least technically) since June 1950. The surrealism that interested him early in his career was rarely something he was exposed to.
South Korea (though ostensibly a democracy) was ruled by a military dictatorship through most of the 1970s and again in the 1980s. “Even though artists are by nature rebellious, their expression was through realism,” Park said of his contemporaries.
Park’s breakthrough success, JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), was one of the first Korean films to address the division of his native country as subject matter for entertainment. It took the country’s all-time box office record, and has been followed by a string of features and TV shows on the subject.
Despite the popularity of the film and the specifically Korean genre it helped create, Park explained it wasn’t material he was interested in revisiting.