EEJ: Ellen E Jones
DW: Damon Wise
PCW: Park Chan Wook
Translated by Chi-Yung Chin
EEJ: Hello and welcome to Barbican ScreenTalks, your chance to hear classic conversations with leading figures from the world of cinema, recorded at the Barbican over the last three decades.
Previously in the series, we've heard from an assortment of British and American filmmakers. In this ScreenTalk, we bring you a conversation with probably the most well-known director to come out of South Korea. Park Chan Wook has recently won rave reviews for The Handmaiden, his sumptuously sexy, suspense-filled adaptation of Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith. But the South Korean director made his name internationally with a string of bleak, brutal films released in the early 00's - dubbed 'The Vengeance Trilogy' by critics.
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance all took a blackly comic look at revenge and redemption. This thematic link wasn't entirely by conscious design, as you'll soon hear the director himself admit. The worldwide critical success of these films, including a Cannes Grand Prix for Old Boy, led Park to move into English language cinema, with 2013's Stoker.
In this ScreenTalk from 2008, Park Chan Wook talks to film journalist Damon Wise about a very different feature, the romantic comedy, I'm A Cyborg But That's OK. Set in a mental hospital, the film is the tale of Young-goon, a woman convinced she's really a cyborg. Playful, strangely moving, and full of stunning visual effects, I'm A Cyborg But That's OK is believed by many to be Park's masterpiece.
In the conversation you're about to hear, the director discusses I'm A Cyborg with the help of interpreter Chi-Yung Chin He talks about why he turned to a love story after the visceral violence of his previous work. He reveals how casting K-Pop superstar Rain as the film’s romantic lead had some unusual benefits. And he looks back at his earlier work, including some films he’d rather forget!
I’m Ellen E Jones and this is Barbican ScreenTalks, with Park Chan-wook.
DW: My first question is basically one that you may all be thinking - how did the director of films like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance turn his attention to a romantic comedy?
PCW: You would probably do the same if you had done, actually three feature films and a short film, over five years, which were very dark and violent and gloomy. You'd probably want to change as well! The main reason however, is the fact that I wanted to make a film for my daughter to see. When she was really young, a baby, it didn't really matter, but she suffered in a way because I've been away a lot shooting films on different locations. So it's a kind of present to her so she can see and watch it and enjoy it. She's got a father who's a film director but she hasn't really seen any of his work. That was a present.
DW: What was the starting point of the film? What was the very first image that came to you?
PCW: Two images came to my mind, the first one is that I was in a car, during post production period of Old Boy and the image came of the group therapy in a mental institute. And I thought of a doctor and a nurse and a group of patients there and the atmosphere of that would be very gloomy and dark and I imagined what would it be like if there were no medical staff there? What if they were just among themselves, the patients among themselves? It might be quite different, that was the first image. It's almost like in Toy Story, the toys came alive when there's no humans around. So I imagined that if there's no medical staff, the patients might have a much livelier conversation. They might have actually fun amongst themselves. That's the beginning of this imagination Secondly, I also had a dream in which there's a cyborg in a girl uniform - a girl cyborg came out just shooting out of her fingertips and then all these bullets coming out of her mouth and that image, I dreamt of this image so it's a combination of these two images.
In the dream, the different between the image you saw, the shooting out of finger scene, the one thing different is that in my dream it actually, in the inner thigh, there's a kind of magazine there, you can actually put it in and then reload the gun. Well, I didn't really make that scene because it's for the 12 year olds...
These two images are coming together but it wasn't really together from the beginning. I had this idea of cyborgs but it would cost a lot of money to make cyborg films. And there are lots of Japanese animations about cyborgs, so it wouldn't be that unique. But if it's about a girl who thinks she's a cyborg - but not a real cyborg - that might be really more unique, and also you can put it together, the earlier in a mental institute idea. And this adult girl, that's how I bring them together.
DW: How did you find your cyborg girl and what was it she brought to the role?
PCW: The lead actress, Im Soo-jung, who plays the female lead in this film is my favourite actress. Or actor - or actress - ever. I saw her on TV, although I don't really watch TV, I just came across her image when she was really adolescent and the TV was on in a restaurant of something - some time ago. But I thought she was a really attractive girl, so I remembered her name. I memorised her name, but never really needed that kind of girl in my films so I'd forgotten about her. But then my fellow director Kim Jee-woon, when he was filming Tale of Two Sisters, he asked me to come along to the audition for the lead characters. So I have no reason to say no, there's going to be lots of pretty girls coming, so I went along. And she came to that audition.
I saw her there and I was really glad to see her, it was a really nice surprise, and then I actually recommended her to director Kim Jee-woon to cast her. I liked her as well but, you know, I was behind her as well. So it was kind of natural for me to think of her when I started preparing for this film and I needed a lady.
At the beginning, she just kept complaining, when she was reading the script, I'm not sure how to play this role? And all I said was 'Think of your seven year old, and just play it'. And then from the first scene, she was almost the character anyway. So it was a pleasure and fun to watch how she really developed this character. When we were preparing, as a reference, and this might be of interest to you, as you're interested in film history, I recommended Visconti's film, White Knights, as a kind of reference, and she thought it was very helpful. The role, Maria, that really innocent performance, and that really inspired Im Soo-jung.
DW: How was it directing Rain, who I understand is a big deal in Korea? I mean, why did you cast him in it and how was his performance for you?
PCW: Rain is big in Korea. You probably don't know him but he's a really big superstar, singer. He's a great dancer, and he's a huge star in Asia. I didn't really know about him before but I went to some sort of ceremony, some awards ceremony, and he was performing there. And apparently Rain, the singer, he wanted to be in a movie, so he performs in any ceremony that would have a lot of film directors come and he would go there and I was watching him performing. And I turned around and I came to see these great actresses in Korea, you know, very elegant, these girls, all totally fascinated by him. They were basically drooling over him. So, I thought, if I take him, I can take any actress. Basically, I wanted the male lead, doesn't have to be technically polished in their acting, but somebody who could really reflect that pure or innocence of the character. So it was quite a good match because this was his first film role. So I didn't really want a very polished, there are lots of established film star in Korea already, established ones, very innocent. Rain recently starred in, well shooting has finished, in the Wachowski Brothers' new film, Speed Racer. You probably know - from The Matrix. So you can check him out when Speed Racer is released
DW: Is it the first time you've worked with someone who has so little experience of film? And if so, was there any special way you went about directing him?
PCW: This was his first film role, but he had some experience in TV dramas, so he's not really a novice. And also he had a very optimistic character. Whatever I suggested, he never said no, or, 'Oh, I don't think I can do it!' Never like that, he's just - OK - you know, he just goes for it. So there was no problem directing him whatsoever because of his attitude.
DW: And what about the other characters in the film? Did you, how did you draw up the types of people that would be in the hospital?
PCW: The rest of the characters, I didn't really create them you know, out of a medical report, or anything, I didn't really research into it like that, they're not real. I've just taken traits and eccentricities from the people around me and then exaggerated it. I'm sure you know someone whose too polite - really really polite - and I took that, and took it a bit further and then make it, so he can't even walk forward, he has to walk backwards because he's too polite. So it's an exaggerated version. I actually checked it out with the actual psychiatrists - is it possible, this kind of symptoms, would it be possible to actually see this in real life? And their response was very lukewarm, 'well I've never seen it but I guess in theory they are possible'.
Because of that lukewarm response, I was a bit worried about it, maybe it's too exaggerated, maybe I should revise it, but anyway, he showed the script to the character who was actually playing, and asked him - what do you think of this? And he said, well actually, there's someone in my neighbourhood who is just exactly like this! There's a guy in the character's neighbourhood who always holds his Bible and walks backward all the time. He'd seen that guy with the Bible, he's growing up looking at him all the time, so now I had that confidence so I just carried on with that script. If you look at any medical report, it'll really go beyond your expectations and imaginations, how the human mind works. It can be such a complicated thing. It can be something you can't even imagine, some kind of disharmony, but at the same time, you would explain something bizarre but wonderful at the same time.
DW: How was the film received in Korea?
PCW: At the beginning of the film, it didn't really do very well at all! I'm not sure if it was worse that Sympathy For Mr Vengeance or not, but it was a box office failure, basically in Korea. Just in terms of box office! J.S.A, Lady Vengeance and Old Boy was successful but Mr Vengeance and I'm a Cyborg But That's OK were failures...
DW: I understand that some people say that I'm A Cyborg is your masterpiece?
PCW: In Korea there are lots of internet sites that rate all these films, and they would give 10 is perfect and then it goes down. So regular audiences, if they want to go and see a movie, they would go and check that out instead of checking out what critics or academics said, they really trust that rating. The thing is, with I'm A Cyborg is that it's either a 10 or a 1. If you take an average of it, it's not really good. And then, well it's just an average. So possibly that's to do with that. You shouldn't really go to Korea to work as a critic - critics don't really have any power at all in Korea!
DW: Well, are you glad you became a director? You studied philosophy and you almost became an art critic yourself?
PCW: I always wanted to be a film director but when I was young, I thought to be a film director you had to have that charismatic character, to be a bit tough to tell people what to do. I was a very introvert boy, very normal, nothing extraordinary, so I kind of gave up at the beginning. I wanted to be a film director but thought I couldn't do it. I thought I'd do the closest next thing - a critic. The next best thing was a film critic, so that's why I went to study aesthetics in the philosophy department at a university, but it turned out I chose the wrong university. They didn't really do any classes on aesthetics. So I was just in despair and wandered around looking for other things. And then I saw Hitchcock's Vertigo and that made me think, whatever it takes, I have to be a film director after seeing that film.
DW: What can you tell us about your first film? The Moon Is the Sun's Dream? Is that the title of it? How did you come to make that film and how does it relate to the films - many people here will have seen your later films, but it's very little seen here...
PCW: It's really fortunate that not many of you have seen this first film - for you and for me! I made it when I was in my twenties and I had this blind ambition to basically make a film, so that's how I got to make that film. And it was very low budget, and very sentimental, and it's just very...you know...awful.
For that one, the producer wanted a particular - actually a singer - he wanted a singer to cast him, he was very popular at the time, and of course he's a very good friend of mine now, but he got into trouble for smoking marijuana at the time and he was basically banned from being on TV. So the reasoning behind the producer's idea is that, because he's very popular, but he can't be on TV, so if he's on film, everyone's going to come and see him! That was the reason behind it. But I didn't want to cast him them... The first screening sold out and that was it - it didn't do very well at all.
DW: But your next film, J.S.A was a very different story. How did that film come to be made and what was your thinking behind making that particular film?
PCW: Actually, there's another one between The Moon...and J.S.A but I'm glad that you don't remember it!
DW: It was a short, that one?
PCW: No, it was a feature...
DW: OK - we can glide over that!
PCW: The second one was also not particularly great - it wasn't received particularly great financially or critically. So, now I'm facing the third feature and I really made an effort to make it well. Because if your third feature is a failure as well, there's only to retire... So I made a great effort. The third feature was produced by the best production company, so basically the production company offered this project to him. So there was no reason for me to really say no. And most of all the subject was about the division of the Korean peninsula and secondly it had the structure of thriller, a crime thriller, which is my favourite kind of film. J.S.A, as you know, dealing with very sensitive political issues. And at the time we were preparing the project, there was a quite strong law, a social security law, and the producer and I thought, if we make this film, then we might have to go to jail. Because it's against the security law. So we even thought about it, but then if we go to jail it might make it more successful, you know, because of that.
DW: Would you have gone to jail?
PCW: I was ready to go jail - but the thing was the film was immensely successful and was the biggest box office film in Korea then. And contrary to my fear that I'd have to go to jail, it in fact softened that social security law, in a way, that people started to laugh at that ridiculous rigid kind of system.
DW: Did you know then, when you finished that film, that your next three films would be preoccupied with the theme of revenge? How did that trilogy come about?
PCW: The Vengeance Trilogy was never really planned to be a trilogy. But the first one, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, I had the script already, I'd written it some time ago. I'd had some kind of inspiration and just written it down, basically, typed it out for 24 hours. It was something I had in mind and wanted to do for a long time. It was great for me but no production company wanted to make the film so the script, for Mr Vengeance, was just in my drawer because nobody wanted it. But because of the success of J.S.A, any production company, every production company in Korea wanted him to bring any project. So it was like I'd been waiting and then 'here you go!' So that's how we made the first one. And the second one, Old Boy, was totally different, because I just liked that original manga, so I wanted to do it. But I didn't really want to connect these two originally.
I was doing a press conference on my new project Old Boy in Korea and a journalist there asked, 'Why are you doing another film revolving around vengeance?' And I just realised then - oh I'm doing a film about vengeance! But what's wrong with vengeance? There's such a long history, obviously going back to mythology and stuff. So my response to that question was 'What's wrong with vengeance? I can do ten films. Well, in fact, I'm planning three!' That's how it came about. So I had to do Lady Vengeance... But I wanted something different, so the main point is that the lead is female, not male. So that's the initial idea.
DW: Does anyone have any questions for director Park?
Q1: How do you recharge your batteries and how sane do you think you are?
PCW: By listening to music, reading novels. I went to see the performance at the Barbican yesterday, the BBC Symphony Orchestra - so that's how I got recharged. It's music and literature that helps me keep my balance. You might not believe me but I read Jane Austen novels.
EEJ: Ellen here, our audience mic didn't quite pick up this question, so I'm going to help out! You say you made this film with your daughter in mind, were there any particular lessons that you wanted her to learn?
PCW: I'm not sure about the subtitles but the idea was just discard your hope. And fighting, basically...! You would come across lots of bestselling books, and self-help books, they'll try to give you this message, don't lose your hope, keep your hope, keep hoping. But everybody knows that is a lie - it doesn't work like that! The hoping, that's not really all you need. So if it's not going to work, give up and that's probably more beneficial to lots of people in fact. In the film, what I refer to as don't forget about hope is that the schizophrenic girl is never going to be cured, so forget about her being cured. But the important thing is in the film, she started to eat. So that's something about encouraging, that's a kind of fight for her, so that's the kind of message.
DW: I think we've got time for one more - there are two people at the back there?
EEJ: This question is, can you tell us about the film's ending?
PCW: Of course you can read it as a rebirth. I intended originally to have that title coming as '60 years later' and then you would see these, male lead and female lead as very old women and old man and they are just watching TV, there's no conversation - almost like they're really bored. The two of them, just watching TV, it starts like that, and then suddenly the rain starts. And the male lead looked out and saw the rain, and then as if they've done all the time, they automatically go out of the room and up to the roof top. And, as if it happens all the time, there's a tent there. And they go in the tent and in fact, it goes out of the set, to the hillside, there's lots of little houses there, and their house is at the top of the hill and at the top of that roof, and they're there, and it's raining, and one of them actually holding on to the antennae and waiting for the thunder. And you know the girl thinks she's a nuclear bomb? And that she's going to, you know, and the whole universe and humanity when she gets struck by lightning. So they are waiting. So that's how I originally intended to finish the film. In the tent they are eating, and waiting for the lightening, so basically, she has been living with the hope that she might fulfil her purpose, which is basically ending humanity. She's been eating, waiting for this day - but it's not quite an optimistic ending, but it's a, if you can call it a hope. She had that hope until that time, 60 years later. But I got rid of all those things, because I thought it was too exploratory, as if it was trying to say too much, so I decided to just cut it there, leave it simple. Just to suggest.
DW: I'm afraid that's all we've got time for - thank you very much to director Park Chan Wook.
EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Park Chan-wook.