The Master:
An Interview with Park Chan-wook

Features, FILM, In Cinemas, Interviews
In conversation with Asia’s biggest filmmaker ahead of the New Zealand release of Stoker and his appearance at Auckland’s Big Screen Symposium.

The day after Snowpiercer’s[1] world premiere, producer Park Chan-wook joined me for a Skype from his Seoul offices. The director of Stoker, Oldboy, and Thirst was a jovial, endearing subject. Via Stoker’s trusty translator, Wonjo Jeong, Park talked energetically about his new film’s eroticism, South Island mountains inspiring a new final shot for Oldboy, and standing up against fate. Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: You’re busy directing and producing films. Do you have any times these days to read philosophy, which is what you studied at university?

PARK CHAN-WOOK: Because I don’t get a lot of time, I tend to read more works of literature rather than books on philosophy. I find myself, however, revisiting this one book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[2]

AB: Oldboy is Nietzschean, a great revenge film; it was dazzlingly cinematic watching it for the first time. The last scene was filmed in New Zealand’s South Island mountains. Did you film that yourself or was it your second unit?

PCW: There’s no concept of second unit in Korean cinema so I went to New Zealand myself to shoot it.

AB: Full auteurship. Did the landscape inspire your creative process?

PCW: Yes. First of all, my reason for going to New Zealand was because of the opposite season down under. The way I wrote the last scene of the script was I wanted the story to take place in a completely different environment, to speak to a passage of time between that last scene and the proceeding scene. So to put a stark contrast to the seasonal background that you have seen, where the main story takes place, I needed a snow-covered landscape. Having come to New Zealand, I shot my scene exactly the way I wanted, but then I walked up Mount Lyford and looked at the visage of an open plain from the heights on top of the mountain, this great visage in front of my eyes, and I felt I really wanted to capture that and wanted to create a new ending. So you know the last, panoramic shot of the film? Where the two protagonists, the man and the young woman, when they are at the top of the mountain overlooking that landscape in front of them?

AB: Yes.

PCW: That’s something that the location inspired. And I really love this new ending—the new last shot that I came up with inspired by the location—because in a way it’s sparse enough for the audience to try to fill in the gaps with their own imagination when it comes to what lies before them. In other words, what would become of their future, the outlook of what is to come. I wanted the audience to fill in that gap using their own imagination after having seen the film. And that visage at the end of the film, I thought it was a great visual metaphor that speaks to that.

AB: Speaking about the difference filming in South Korea and America, there was a great quote from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where you said, “In Asia the director is King, in America the director is Prime Minister.” You’ve also been quoted as saying, “I was very hesitant at first to work in Hollywood, mainly due to the existing prejudices regarding Hollywood producers. They are seen as these bumbling idiots until you get to meet them.” What’s exciting and what’s challenging about working in L.A. (on Stoker) versus Seoul?

PCW: I’m sometimes misquoted in interviews. I want to be certain in terms of my quote, I said: “In Korea the director is King, and in America the director is President.” I wish I was the one that came up with this great quote. I got it from Ang Lee [laughs] and I was quoting Ang Lee when I said that.

As for this quote about prejudice against American producers as bumbling idiots until you meet them—I feel my comments were misinterpreted, perhaps. When you see films like The Player by Robert Altman, and when you watch all these other films coming out of Hollywood that deal with the Hollywood scene, they tend to depict the studio executives as these people who surround themselves with beautiful women and drive around in sports cars and so forth. So these films on Hollywood, they create a stereotypical image, right? But these people I’ve met in person, they always put filmmaking at the fore, and they’re unbelievably diligent and hard-working people. So from a director’s point of view, it’s not easy, it’s challenging because they have a lot of questions they want to talk to the filmmaker about and a lot of discussions they would like to have. So that is a prime example of what was challenging, as well as surprising, as well as exciting, all at the same time.

AB: Do you have a funny story from working with your brother, Park Chan-kyong? Your 2011 collaboration Night Fishing won Best Short Film at the Berlinale. I’m at the Melbourne International Film Festival (with my siblings), we’re going to see your new partnership Day Trip.

PCW: When my brother went to America to study the arts, I tried to convince him to go to film school. And back then I was talking to my brother, “you go to film school and once you’re finished we can direct like the Coen brothers, co-direct films.” Because [with] the Coen brothers, one brother went to a film school and the other brother went to study philosophy, just like how I went to study philosophy, and if my younger brother had just listened to me and went to film school, we would be exactly the same as the Coen brothers [laughs]. But my little brother said, “no, I’m going to study fine arts.” But after having returned to Korea and establishing himself as a media artist in Korea, now he’s started to become interested in filmmaking. And that’s one of the reasons why I started working with my little brother to co-direct these short films. So far we’ve been keeping our collaborations to a small scale. I think it’s an interesting way to collaborate, and interesting projects to do as the brother team. I think it would be fun to do more experimental work under this brother brand of PARKing CHANce, and do stuff like documentaries or even TV commercials maybe, and more music videos (which we’ve recently done). We are agile about how we work, and we’re able to work on smaller budgets as well, very much guerilla-style. That’s why we named the brother brand PARKing CHANce. If we see an opportunity to park the car we’ll get right on in there.[3]

AB: On a different note, on Stoker, Tolstoy supposedly said: “All families are dysfunctional in their own way.” Do you have a comment on that idea?

PCW: My focus on Stoker was—rather than that idea of all families are dysfunctional—to give more weight tn the perspective of how girls of that age have a tendency to be curious, and are confused about this idea of evil, and are curious about it and get attracted towards evil. That’s what I wanted to explore metaphorically, through Stoker.

AB: “It’s hard to deny that this Gothic, slow-burning psycho-thriller’s the work of a master stylist, whose obsessive attention to detail is intoxicating,” Filmmaker magazine said. In reference to a couple of scenes in Stoker, India’s shower scene and the piano scene with her Uncle Charlie, you’ve said: “I think suggestions are far more effective and erotic than explicit imagery.”

PCW: Yes absolutely, I was correctly quoted there. If I were as a filmmaker to depict those scenes more literally in terms of the sexual connection or those sexual moments, if I were to turn that literally into a physical moment and depict it more explicitly, it may have attracted some curiosity from the audience, but certainly it would not have made an elegant film. And considering my approach towards my film is to really deal with the confusion of girls going through that time of puberty or coming-of-age, and to make a metaphoric film that speaks to the growing pains or what you go through as you come of age, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for what I was setting out to achieve in that regard.

But not only those scenes that you mentioned; the movie is filled with this sexual energy throughout. For instance, there’s also a scene where Evie [Nicole Kidman], the mother, and Uncle Charlie, they come back from their shopping in town and they start chatting about the wine that Uncle Charlie selected. Evie talks about the mature aroma and Uncle Charlie responds by saying it’s much better than the younger wine that’s not ready to be opened. It seems that they’re making sexual references in saying that mature woman are sexually superior to the younger girls. But then we find out later on that the year that Uncle Charlie has picked is the same vintage as the year that India was born, and then it takes on a whole new nuance doesn’t it? When India takes the glass from Uncle Charlie, it’s a form of approval; India approving Uncle Charlie’s advances as it were. Because it means that she’s ready to be opened. The same thing with the high heels scene. In its own way, the entire film is full of sexual energy.

AB: How old were you when you first became hooked on movies?

PCW: I decided to become a film director back when I was at university. It must have been when I was 22, that was when I first saw Vertigo at a screening run by a film club that I was a part of.

AB: I just read brilliant comment by Martin Scorsese on why Vertigo is special. As a former film critic do you miss writing criticism?

PCW: [laughs] Not at all, Alexander. Not because the job of a film critic is bad, but you know I started out as a film director not as a film critic. My first couple of films didn’t do that well at the box office, so I was forced to somehow make a living, and I was thinking what can I do to put bread on the table for the family, and I started working as a film critic. It wasn’t by choice that I started working as a film critic, it was more a job that I needed as a necessity to make a living. That’s the reason why I don’t miss it.

AB: Your Joint Security Area powerfully explores Korea’s partition, and the DMZ Bill Clinton once described as “the scariest place in the world.” Are you interested in making another film about the traumatic divide?

PCW: I don’t have any plans at the moment, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future? I wouldn’t write off the possibility of making one. Since JSA, a lot of films have been made in Korea about the divided situation of North and South Korea, so I wonder what new things I can bring to the table. But if I do make another film that deals with the North and South Korean divide, I would probably approach it from a spy thriller perspective as the last remaining region in the entire world where the country is divided due to Cold War Ideologies. It’s still the last remaining remnant of the Cold War, and as a person living in that place I feel that setting, the situation, is very ripe for a spy thriller, and that provides great material for a spy thriller. Although saying that it’s great for anything when you’re talking about something like the North and South Korea divide is a bit ironic.

AB: To close, how do you describe your creative philosophy?

PCW: [laughs] I reckon it’s different from film to film. Whether it’s something I can concisely sum up in a sentence—with enough consistency to be found in all these different works—I’m not so sure. One commonality running through all my films, I suppose, is a person who rises up against fate, or who’s not afraid of fighting against fate, or who doesn’t run away from fate, in other words. Regardless of whether that effort is successful or a failure, that very act of standing up against fate is a noble thing.

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© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at rathvatcharakiet.blogspot.co.nz.

The Big Screen Symposium is an annual Auckland event Park Chan-wook and Wonjo Jeong were speakers, along with Guillermo Arriaga, David Wenham, Rolf de Heer, and other international and local filmmaking guests.
The terrific ‘Stoker’ opens New Zealand wide on August 15. Thanks to Melinda Jackson for some transcription assistance on this article.


[1] Snowpiercer, a Korean/American/French co-production, is the new film by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host). Park Chan-wook is a producer.

[2] Park’s translator, Wonjo Jeong, co-producer of Stoker (and producer of Night Fishing), lived in Lower Hutt for more than half his life.

[3] PCW: PARKing CHANce is also a play on our names, as well. We’re both Parks, as in our surnames, and we both have the syllable Chan in our given names.


When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.