Q & A with Park Chan-Wook

Preview of Thirst
plus Q&A session with Writer/Director Park Chan-Wook

5th October 2009 – Curzon Cinema – 18:10

The Curzon Soho is an intimate cinema with a lot of charm and a real love of independent and foreign films – the walls ooze with an understated intelligence and adoration of movies that move, surprise and mean something. The bar serves a range of interesting and delicious snacks, from freshly made soup to huge strawberry meringues, while the snacks counter has the usual array of fresh popcorn and syrupy drinks to appease the rigidly traditional cinema-goers.

The Curzon Soho survives in the heart of London – jostling between the mighty giants of the Odeons, Cineworlds, Empire and Vue – because of its regular clientele of film-lovers and its staunch practice of sticking to screening what they believe is quality, not just what a huge advert and 500 TV spots says it should show. It ignores the blockbuster and celebrates the smaller films, something only a few independent cinemas and Picturehouses bravely do today.

Hosting a post-film question and answer session with Korean director Park Chan-Wook was a smart move, packing the cinema with an audience who respect his previous work and genuinely want to hear his opinion. There was only one stupid question asked (more on that later).

Park Chan-Wook is the Korean Writer / Director of such classics as Joint Security Area, I’m a Cyborg. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, the latter three affectionately labeled as “The Vengeance Trilogy”. Chan-Wook is most famed for Oldboy, a brutally twisted story of a man kidnapped for fifteen years and released without reason. This unique film is perhaps best known for an extended one-shot fight scene down a corridor, the eating of a live cephalopod and some horrific self-surgery. Yet all of Park Chan-Wook’s work is memorable for the unique characters, fresh direction and moments of extreme violence. Oldboy is set to receive the remake treatment, currently by Steven Spielberg and Will Smith, if you can imagine it. Thirst is destined to head in the same direction, being perhaps the most commercially viable of his films in this age of Bella & Edward, Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake et al.

Thirst won the coveted Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in May this year, and was also nominated for the illustrious Golden Palm. It has received positive reviews wherever it has played and is destined to be a classic, standing proud amongst the other more highly regarded vampire films such as Nosferatu and Let the Right One In.

Park Chan-Wook has refused to jump ship from the Korean film studios and land in the comfortable waters of Hollywood, retaining the services of an interpreter rather than learn the English language, much like horror auteur Dario Argento. There is something honourable about this, and his dedication to his own country’s film industry is greatly respected.

Park Chan-Wook

As the clock ticks past 18:15, The Times’ James Christopher introduces Park Chan-Wook. In an inoffensive suit and walking with a casual gait, Park Chan-Wook comes on stage with his translator and bows humbly to the audience before heading off to dinner while we watch his 133 minute vampire epic. Sweetly, Park Chan-Wook suggests that if we do like his film, and don’t leave half-way through, then he would be back to answer our questions after the film. No one leaves. Everyone stays.

The film itself is excellent – a masterfully crafted piece of work that shocks, surprises, amuses and gets the brain-cells firing for a long time after.

Over two hours later and the Curzon staff let the credits roll fully before ushering Park-Chan Wook, his interpreter and James Christopher back on stage.

James Christopher asks a few pertinent, pre-arranged questions, which Park Chan-Wook answers in length, and then his interpreter retells in length, from memory. Impressive as this is, we learn a number of things about our Korean director.

“I don’t like long pauses of seriousness or fear or sorrow, so I like to break it with humour.” Coming from the director of the endlessly bleak Oldboy, this is somewhat surprising. He admits that the origin of all his characters come from tragedy and comedy – and the balance is a tentative one.

Regarding Thirst as a whole, Park Chan-Wook felt the general concept of a priest attempting to retain religion and morality whilst becoming a vampire was humourous in itself. Perhaps it is his long-lasting affiliation with the church that makes him find this more hilarious than tragic.

Park Chan-Wook explains how he was brought up Roman Catholic, and at a young age his local priests said that he could be a great Bishop one day. This was the moment he gave up going to church. For Park Chan-Wook the idea of giving everything up was a horrible concept – women, drinking, an alternative future – but this decision, this tiny revelation, put into motion the lifelong intrigue around what kind of private life a priest must have. When he first encountered Holy Communion it reminded him of cannibalism and vampirism – consuming the blood and body of Christ – and this influenced his thoughts on a vampire clergyman, further fuelling this idea. There is some level of irony in Park Chan-Wook’s reaction to being told he would make a fantastic Bishop – he created a morally demented horror film about a clergyman whose humanity is ripped from him slowly and brutally.

Park Chan-Wook

After the pre-scripted replies, James Christopher opens the questions to the floor. With these Q&A sessions, there was so much opportunity to ask idiotic and irrelevant questions, but luckily the Curzon’s audience seem to focus more on the film in hand (apart from one fool… more on that later). Surprisingly, there was also no “how did you convince Min-sik Choi to eat a live octopus in Oldboy?” or any displays of cringing idolatry. All questions were relevant to his overall work or Thirst itself.

I have paraphrased the Q&A session below, and I’m paraphrasing the interpreter’s paraphrasing, yet the essence of Park Chan-Wook’s responses are focused and honest.

The atheist character is much more immoral than the vampiric priest – happy to kill without guilt. Is this a way to say it is wrong to not have faith?

Priest Sang-hyeon did not give himself up to change, and is pitiful because of it, whilst the atheist is free but gives up humanity. “Neither is positive, each has negative aspects”, Park Chan-Wook explains. It was not his intention to promote religion.

Park Chan-Wook mentioned earlier how Priest Sang-hyeon reflected his own personality in many ways – he is pathetic when he struggles with choice, but feels he is more human because of it.

Innocent men being pushed into doing horrific things is a theme amongst your work – why does this come up?

“I like to show normal innocent people who experience a horrific accident,” he tells us – for example, being trapped in a cell for fifteen years, being wrongly imprisoned for child murder, being turned into a vampire. In these cases, he explains, it is after they die in a symbolic way that we watch the character transform in a very interesting way. This is what interests him.

Has popular vampire culture influenced this project?

Park Chan-Wook admits to have never seen True Blood or Let the Right One In whilst making Thirst. His project has been in development for ten years, so he has not been influenced by the recent popularity increase in the vampire genre.

Is anything lost or misinterpreted during the translation process?

It is always difficult, especially with cultural differences, as some character is always lost in translation. Park Chan-Wook explains how bilingual people often approach him and question him, saying “great film, but the translation is terrible”, but if they tried to do it themselves they would understand how difficult it is.

One cultural difference, for example, is that Korean’s cannot call their elders by their first name – it is a mark of disrespect. Park Chan-Wook is addressed in Korea by his vocation as “Director”. So technically James Christopher should’ve been calling him Director Chan-Wook all evening… disrespectful sod.

Park Chan-Wook explains that despite these cultural and language differences, sometimes it is much funnier and more interesting when translated, so English-speaking audiences are missing and gaining things.

What films influenced Thirst?

Park Chan-Wook seemed uncharacteristically cagey about mentioning anything that inspired him, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Influenced is a “big word”. Possession by Andrzej Zulawski perhaps had some influence, but Thirst is homage to this, not inspired by it. His main actress, Ok-vin Kim, asked for help in acting during certain scenes and Park Chan-Wook made her watch Possession to influence her acting. The only real homage to this is Ok-vin Kim wearing a Blue Dress in Thirst’s climax, which is identical to the one Isabelle Adjani wears in Possession.

The Q&A ends here, and Park Chan-Wook once again bows his appreciation to the clapping crowd. He is a smart director, humble, intellectual, humourous and likeable. As one of the audience, it was a pleasure to see him live.

Personally, I only thought of my own pertinent questions on the journey home, where my mind managed to digest everything it had witnessed. There is a lot of depth in Thirst, a lot more than you initially notice, and a second viewing has now become essential.

Oh, and I almost forgot the idiotic question. Here it is.

My sister asks, do you like Twilight?

Park Chan-Wook sighs wryly (no translation required).

“My daughter loves it,” he replies, diplomatically.

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