Shortly before heading down to Southern California for Comic-Con, Park Chan-wook stopped at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to chat about Thirst, the first Korean feature to be made with U.S. studio investment and distribution (via Focus Features). The vampire flick follows a number of other prominent imports by Park, most notably his "Venegeance Trilogy": Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Also to Park's credit are 2006's I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, the "Cut" segment from 2004's Three... Extremes, and his 2000 breakthrough film, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area. With the help of a translator, we discussed philosophy, Catholicism, his tradition of reaching his actors through drinking bouts, and the themes of Park's career, including the vampire romance melodrama Thirst.
Groucho: I have a question that’s never been asked before, I’m sure. (Pause.) What are your influences? I’m just kidding.
Park Chan-wook: (Laughs.)
Groucho: But I am curious about your philosophy study. I know originally the intention was aesthetic philosophy. But is there a particular train of thought from that study that has kind of stuck with you and maybe found its way into your films?
Park Chan-wook: If I was to comment on the specific trend in philosophy or a specific school of thought, perhaps I can say that I still have a trace of existentialism left from my studies. And also I have learned this attitude towards logic, or attitude towards the process of thinking, where I would have this subject, and I would create a sentence around the subject. And then keep following this chain of thought that derived from this subject until I’m met with a wall where I can’t go anywhere. Or, if I can put it another way, I have learned how to dig deep down and try and look for the root of where this subject originates from. I am not always successful in such attempts, but nevertheless, I try, and it’s this attitude.
G: So am I right in understanding that that process, through your films, suggests a kind of personal exploration of what the psychological root is for yourself, pursuing an idea in the film?
PC: Well, yes and no, really. I haven’t made many films where it deals with specific life experiences I have gone through. Rather, these are the questions about situations that I find myself in, but these situations are something that is not unique to me, but rather is very universal. For instance, these are the questions like “Why am I born like this?” And “How will I exit this world?” “What is God’s will, and how is that it reveals itself in this way?” So these are the questions I think are—not only that I can ask, but something that everyone is asking.
G: Many of your films have delivered a kind of fantasy of repressions lifted. The repression is bad, but also indulging emotion can be bad, over-indulging. In this film, in Thirst, these desires vomit forth that might be called sin, and they both liberate and trap the heroes. Can you talk about this tension?
PC: Wow, it’s a surprise what you have just said—[it] very well summarizes what my films are about. And I almost feel this catharsis at the right spot has been pin-pushed. At the same time, this is a very difficult question to answer. (Laughs.) This is something I have been doing all along, but has managed to articulate into sentences with the right sort of vocabulary. And to see someone actually come out and do that, I get to think that “Wow, so this is what a writer does, or this is what a critic does.” What you have pointed out is all correct. Be it repression or obvious desires, or be it the joys of liberation from these repressions, what I try to deal with [are] these characters who try to take responsibility for the results of their actions. I think it’s what I’m trying to deal with in my films. Because for a person going through his life or her life, be it big or small, they always come across points in their lives where they find themselves doing something wrong, or where they are engaged in some wrong doing, be it a big thing or a small thing. And it is unavoidable in a person’s life. But the point is whether people who are doing these wrong things are aware of it or not. How sensitive are they to being aware of what they are doing? And this is what I am trying to deal with. So my characters in my films are always trying to take responsibility for their own actions. They may be trying to repress their desires, or they may enjoy moments of liberation, but they are making decisions. And they are trying to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Maybe sometimes it is a foolish thing for them to do this, but nevertheless, in their attempt to take responsibility, they are able to achieve some sort of integrity at the end of that.
G: You were also a film critic yourself. Does that give you any more sympathy for us ink-stained wretches?
PC: (Laughs.) That is exactly why I am probably more, I guess, generous to a critical response to my films, compared with any other directors, perhaps, in the world. So regardless whether I am given a “BOMB” for my film or regardless of how much a critic tries to deride my film—of course I try to, as much as I can, avoid reading these kinds of reviews, but when I do come across these reviews, I try to be okay about it. Because I understand the person that’s writing it is trying to make a living writing it. And also in writing these reviews, they have to let their personality come through, and they’re trying to differentiate themselves from other critics as well. So having had the first-hand experience, I understand this desperation when somebody is trying to write for a living, so I tend to be generous about whatever bad reviews I might get. I sympathize with these critics or writers who write reviews for a living. So my generosity extends only to this group of people. When I come across amateurs who are writing these reviews because it is their hobby or just out of fun, and they’re out to attack my films or deride my films viciously, my patience can sometimes be cut short.
G: I’ve liked all the films, by the way.
G: You were raised Catholic and I understand went to a Jesuit university. And Catholicism recurs in your films. What does Catholicism mean to you? Do you find comfort or confusion in it?
PC: In fact, as a religion or as a faith, I have left Catholicism a long time ago. But it was part of the mix that I went through during my younger years, where my worldview, or my sensibilities were being formed. Of course Catholicism was part of the mix of things that were forming my worldview and my sensibilities. So at a level where my reason can’t really control, unavoidably I must have been influenced by Catholicism. However, if you were to say that it had a decisive influence on me, as it would have done to some Italian-American directors, it would actually be an exaggeration. A gross one. The kind of emotion that I feel when I listen to music by, say, Johann Sebastian Bach, I feel immensely moved. And I think this must have something to do with my background, of once having had faith in Catholicism. Of course, you say that Bach himself was Lutheran, but at the time, it was at that stage for Lutheranism where a lot of Catholic traditions still remained in their faith. But I’m speaking in more broad terms, in that Bach’s music was inspired by Christianity, ideas of Christianity. So the fact that I’m moved by his music—I can only explain that I have respect for his music and I am moved by his music, which in turn was probably inspired by my faith. And I must have respect for people who have faith in Catholicism or Christianity. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been moved so much. Because I see how much this faith has moved the artist. And that is part of what moves me when I am listening to this music. And that’s why—especially when it is an artist who also has faith—I have respect for these artists with faith. And when it comes to painters, my favorite painter is Diego Rivera…And, in that also, in his paintings, you feel this faith. And that is quite moving. So for me to feel this way, I must find some sort of comfort in Catholicism.
G: What did you learn about your actors in your rounds of drinks for Thirst? And what did you or they take away that was useful this time?
PC: For me, this time around in these rounds of drinks, the most important thing with this dialogue was my relationship with the actress. In Korea, especially—well, perhaps this goes the same for all the other actresses in the rest of the world as well—but Korean actresses are extremely shy of performing in the nude and doing sex scenes. And here we have this twenty-two-year-old who is very young and even if it wasn’t for these nude scenes or bed scenes, there still are a lot of these difficult performances that she has to perform, where you’re sucking on blood, or you are being in an ecstatic state. So for somebody so young, perhaps not having had the opportunity to go through all the variety of emotions that you need to portray in this film, and also for somebody who hasn’t had as many films under her belt as her other colleagues in this film, it might have been a difficult situation for her to find herself in. And also she might somehow feel that this director is trying to use me, and she might feel victimized in a certain sense. So these rounds of drinks helped where the actor who was playing her husband and of course Song Kang-ho would sit down together and explain everything to her and check how she was feeling and prepare for what’s to come tomorrow and talk about it. And also go through what happened today and also give her compliments for her performances—which are very good performances—for what she has done for the day, after shooting has wrapped. So creating this sort of family atmosphere where she got to feel that she was protected, not being used. I think it was important.
G: One of your early jobs, before making films, was writing prose versions of foreign films, sight unseen. I’m curious what your version of Stakeout was like, for example.
PC: (Laughs.) Novelizations for different films, where I would take the script and, scene by scene, I would rewrite it as if writing a novel. But these in no way contained any of my thoughts towards these films.
G: Right. But the stories would diverge because you hadn’t seen the films, right?
PC: Yes, that’s right. (Laughs.) Sometimes, just not having seen the film, just reading and trying to write a novel out of it, sometimes it ended up very different.
G: You’ve written about not clinging to dreams that have proven not to be possible. And here in America, we always talk about “the American Dream,” and I think a lot of people are waking up to that not being possible, with the economic crisis. Though it’s potentially downbeat, do you think this might be the subject matter of a future film?
Translator: Oh ho! Oh ho ho…[asks question].
PC: Well, it is very possible, very possible. And there’s a Korean saying, which was coined in the modern times, during the military dictatorship, the era of military dictatorship in Korea. The saying goes, “If you do it, it will happen” or “Doing is achieving,” it could be translated. “If you do it, what will happen?” I would like to ask, in turn. So setting these unrealistic dreams, which are almost like a fantasy, is kind of a mockery. Now this saying is coming—if somebody [who] has achieved everything is saying something to somebody who is very downtrodden and tries to encourage him by saying, “Well, if you do it, it’ll happen,” there’s no greater mockery than this. So it is very possible, I think, that I will deal with this issue. This issue of “American dream” is not really limited to Americans, I think, because in this day and age of globalization, where these American ideals are forced upon the rest of the world, now it is not only the Americans who hold onto this American dream, but it’s the whole world who have this American—what you call this “American dream.” And it’s quite a serious issue to be dealt with.
G: Well, I have to stop.
G: But thank you both very much.
PC: Thank you.