Many of you know Chan-wook Park from his classic film Oldboy (which is about to be remade and most likely murdered by Will Smith and Steven Spielberg). The film put him on the map in the US as one of the most imaginative, violent, and visionary directors of our time. When it comes to Thirst, he does not disappoint, dare I say he raises the bar even for himself.
For such a violent and crazy film-maker, when Park sat down for the interview, he seemed rather shy and polite, although even with a translator the man had a wicked sense of humor. He told us about his experiences with film-making, unlike many other directors, he did not go to film school, in fact he did not even have the chance to watch many of the classic films that many people say he reminds them of. Talking to him made me believe in fate — this man was born to make films.
Enough from me, check out the interview below…
Note: Just to be clear, Chan-wook Park uses a translator for his interviews, so in the transcription you’ll see the word “he” instead of “I” when he’s talking about himself. Don’t worry, you’ll catch on quickly enough…
The film walks the line between a horror film and at times a comedy. How did you balance between the humor and the seriousness of what you were doing?
Ten years ago, he couldn’t dream that he would end up with a film like this because at the time he was determined to actually make a humorless film, so much so that he told himself he would make the darkest and most serious film in the history of cinema. But, a filmmakers tendency or personality isn’t something that can be changed by determination because even though he decided that he would make a very serious film, he ended up with something like this. So the more they jump around full of rage, become the subject of violence or tremble in fear in anticipation of such violence, in these situations if you just shift the angle a little bit, if you change the point of view or if you change the size of zoom, then you are able to capture humor in that situation. There’s not much difference at all actually, between something that is dark and serious, and something that is hilarious.
Why in this point in your career do you find yourself dealing with the supernatural in your work? There’s always been a surreal quality to it but here it seems there’s a clear super-natural element. Is that just a chance or was that something that’s been drawing you in a certain direction for sometime?
This film is something that he’s been thinking about for a long time so it’s not like he came out with this film now and to say say “we need something like this.” But, for a vampire film, he reckons you can almost say it’s the most realistic approach for a vampire film and by decreasing the amount of super-naturalism in this film, he thinks that he was able to meet at the middle point. There are surreal elements in this film so he was bringing down the super-naturalism in this film to meet with a level of surrealism found in his previous films. If you think back, to his past work, fantastical elements have been on the increase, if you just look at Sympathy For Lady Vengeance or Lady Vengeance, there is an increasing fantastical element.
On one hand you can almost say this is part of that progression to reach Thirst like this but although, he is bringing down the super-naturalism of fantastical elements. For example, in the film, when they are playing majong at the house, Sang-hyeon comes downstairs for a secret rendezvous with Tae-joo, the female lead. Their act of love making is stopped and she returns by walking upstairs Sang-hyeon walks out of the costume and he jumps up to grab at a window ledge of the bathroom and in your usual vampire film this would be done very fluent in motion and his movements would be graceful. Where as in this film, the way he holds on to the ledge, there’s something awkward about it. He doesn’t quite get the timing right and his body swerves to one side. So this is how, although there is supernatural in this film that he wants to differentiate it from other films.
I’d like to ask, why attracts you especially to vampires and vampire mythology?
Of course this film started from being a story about a Catholic priest and vampire was something was brought in and in order to put this Catholic priest through the most (11:37) trial imaginable. But if you ask him what elements of vampirism in general that he finds interesting, it’s unlike his other films, it’s not about vampires being immortal or them having super powers or them being very beautiful, to behold, but it’s the fact that they can only consume blood, that they can only drink blood and they can only, they’re nocturnal, they can only move-about during the night. It is very limited in what they can do, so almost, someone to be sympathize with these poor creatures that have all his limitations placed on him, these limitations that they did not seek.
Most of the time, in many films, the men are the one’s out going crazy and the women are the one’s that reel them in but in this movie you have a woman who gets to be completely crazy and insane and dare I say fucked up, for just the sake of it, there’s no better explanation. I was wondering if you can speak a little bit on that.
Maybe it’s because all the women around him are like that. (laughter) When he says that he, he does so because he would say this during the interviews and what-not, when he says that he would like to bring out female characters to the floor a little more, and treat them like more of the man character and compared with how women are traditionally described in films. And compared with how the women characters, female characters in his previous films. But when he says this, he doesn’t necessarily mean that he wants to put them in this good role model kind of characters. He doesn’t think that you are really treating them right for that. Sometimes his characters, he will put his female characters and give them these personalities that will be sometimes crazy, or sometimes they will be plain bad or sometimes they would do foolish things. By doing that, he thinks he is really treating these female characters right and doing them justice.
How do you choose your leading ladies? A lot of time, I know, that you surprise the audience with your choice of main female character.
All the process of the decisions of film-making are based on reason; based on calculation and logic. However, when it comes to choosing his leading ladies, rather than base his choice or decision on reason or logic he seems to rely more on his instincts and in his gut feeling. So because his decisions are based on gut feeling, it is really hard to explain, but if he was pushed, in this instance the thing that drew him to Ok-vin Kim was the fact that she’s a very unsettled person. This may not have been a good thing for this film for the requirements of the role, but he also got the same feeling he had when he saw Hye-jeong Kang for the first time for a role in Oldboy.
What kind of horror films did you look up to? When you approach this movie what inspired you?
Not having gone to film school and as somebody who has studied film on his own, before he became a film director, when he was young in Korea, there was no cinematek and all he would be able to, all he could have access to were films that had been released at the cinema or through Hollywood. He didn’t really have the opportunity to watch all the classic films. He only could access them through reading about them in these books. So you could say he almost has no tradition or he hasn’t, his study of film was really here and there and there was no system to it. He would ask peop;e who were going overseas to get some videos on their way back and that sort of thing. He wasn’t, he couldn’t really be aware of this heritage of cinema or to claim some sort of lineage.
For instance, before he was able to see any of the classic films he would see the Cohen Brothers films. But, if he considers who most influenced his work as more and more he gets older and reflects on this question, he comes to the realization that the Korean director Kim Ki-Yun has been the figure with the most influence on his film-making. This was a Korean director who’s most prolific during the 60’s and 70’s and he’s much older than him so he’d be part of the previous generation and this director would have been influenced by his kids or his colleagues who made films during that time when he was making films. And these influences would be filtered by this director Kim Ki-yun and handed down to him.
This is in-part related to the question before about how he chooses his leading ladies as well. One of the things that he was attracted to about Kim Ok-vin was this great contrast between her beautiful face and her hands, these tough looking, very thick and, with long lengthy fingers with sturdy looking joints. It’s very scary imagining this hand grasping hold of your men, and manipulating them and controlling them and really having a grip on the men. So much so, that he actually included a shot of this in the film, of her hand grasping and gripping the shoulder of a male character. But this image of a beautiful female character grasping or gripping onto the male character is a class Kim Ki-Yun moment.
Also, you can view this film as being powered by film world tradition as well in the vein of The Postman Always Rings Twice. So in a sense this film is a story about a woman who plots to murder her husband with her lover, so it follows that sort of tradition, but again this is all actually contained in Emile Zola’s novel and all the story elements. So if you try and look at all the different elements in this film, and there are a great number of them, if you try and track down all the influences be it Eastern or Western, it’s a great mix and fusion of all these element which influence this film. If you try and track down, the process would be very interesting indeed, almost as anthropologists and archaeologists quest to dig up and try and find treasure under the ground.
The film deals with a relationship within a family that ultimately proves as more destructive in a way, than the super-natural forces. For you, does the family hold the greatest potential to violence or destruction in society?
If you look at the family dynamics from Tae-joo’s point of view you could make that observation as according to her line of dialogue when she says she was raised as a dog or she says her, this family’s opinion towards a marriage was that she started sleeping with mother one day and then the next day after marriage she’s now sleeping on the bed of her son. So for this character, a marriage is kind of like a prison or hell that she’s trapped in and if you’re looking at it from that prespective.
But if you are looking at it from Sang-Hyeon’s point of view the argument is more religious or it has to do with existing age of condition for a human being. Now Sang-Hyeon, just like the idea of Catholicism or vampire, notions that originate from the West and made their way into Korea. Sang-Hyeon is an outside element that penetrates into this family, a very closed family and just like virus enters your body or just like a vampire’s blood reaches into your system and turns you, changes you into something else entirely. So one of the main things of this film is in looking at external elements and entering into an internal environment and to see how the internal environment reacts to that.
So an interesting result of these two characters meeting together is in looking at how this mother-in-law changes from a very typical bad character and how she changes after her paralysis. After her paralysis, she observes these two characters with those two eyes that are reminiscent of eyes of God, for instance. Before she was paralyzed she was this very active person, she would be talkative, she would be energetic, she would be slapping people around but after being paralyzed all she can do is observe and look at these two characters and in her eyes, you feel almost this omnipotent power, so she almost becomes this Godly being where she observes these two characters and through the observation, she affects then as well. Sang-Hyeon for instance is jolted by the way he’s looked at by her when he’s drinking Tae-joo’s blood. Just the way she has this ever present eyes, eyes that are always there, looking at you, right up to the moment of their demise at the end of the film, this is the dramatic result of Sang-Hyeon and Tae-joo’s character meeting up together.
Check out Thirst in theaters now.