Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
I was feeling pretty damn fierce. I had just finished filming on the CBS drama N.C.I.S. here in Los Angeles—popping a guy’s kneecap, disarming a bomb and taking down a North Korean terrorist cell—Hollywood style. That evening I came home and watched director Park Chanwook’s new film Lady Vengeance, 12 hours before my flight to Seoul, Korea, and two days before meeting with Park. And, oh my, talk about female ferocity! Bone-chilling, muscle-exhausting, jaw-tightening ferocity like no other. And all from the seemingly sweet, pretty, petite Ms. Kumja (played by breathtaking and unnerving Lee Young-ae). Instead of Lady Vengeance’s dead-giveaway English title, the Korean is deceptive, Sweet Ms. Kumja, one of those titles your parents would mistakenly pick up at the video store.
I had never seen so many Korean women depicted like this—vengeful, humiliated/humiliating, ugly, raw, vulnerable, beautiful, sorrowful, soulful and fierce—all in one film. Lady Vengeance depicts Kumja’s journey of revenge to track down the abusive father of her estranged daughter and to seek resolution with the child, who was adopted by an Australian family. It was an exciting ending to Park’s beautiful, violent and grotesque vengeance trilogy, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2001) and Cannes’s Best Critic award winner Oldboy (2003)—Hallryu-wood style. Hallryu translates as “The Korean Wave,” a term first coined in the Chinese media to describe Korea’s enormous recent cultural impact throughout Asia in film, TV dramas, fashion, sports, music and more. At its forefront is director Park Chanwook. I had the privilege of meeting with him in Seoul, where I was this past winter teaching a drama intensive and enjoying the Lunar New Year with my relatives.
Esther K. Chae It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, and congratulations on your vengeance trilogy. How did it come about? And what are your feelings looking back at the three films as a whole?
Park Chanwook After my movie Joint Security Area JSA (2000), which was about the North and South Korean division, I wanted to deal with social and economic class divisions within South Korea. So in the trilogy’s first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a young deaf-mute man named Ryu kidnaps a wealthy businessman’s daughter for ransom money, in order to pay for an operation for his terminally ill sister. Then I jumped at the opportunity to make Oldboy, based in part on a Japanese animation, once I heard that the actor Choi Min-sik was on board to play the vengeful father character, Oh Dae-su. Oh is abducted on the street after just having been released from prison where he’d been brought in for drunk and disorderly behavior and wakes to find himself in a drab, makeshift cell with only a television as company and no idea why he’s there. Finally released after 15 years of solitary confinement—during which time he learns on TV that his wife has been murdered, and Oh himself (now listed as a missing person) is the main suspect—Oh is demonically determined to find who did this to him, why, and to wreak the vengeance he’s had years to contemplate.
After finishing these two movies, though, I found myself having neglected the female experience. I vowed that my next movie would be about women and stories from their perspectives.
Looking back at the films, one thing stands out: there was an event where the three movies were screened together and a special poster had been made with all the leading characters on one page—Choi Min-sik, Song Kang-ho, Lee Young-ae, Shin Ha-kyun, Du-na Bae and Hae-jung Kang. When I saw them together, I felt this contentment that I had worked with these amazing actors who represent an important generation of Korean cinema. That is what I am most proud of from the trilogy.
EC And what about your next film, It’s OK that I’m a Cyborg. Is it a sci-fi movie?
PC No, it’s about a delusional patient who thinks she’s a cyborg. It’s a romance between a young hospitalized girl who meets a boy with the same symptoms. There is one scene where we get to see her as a cyborg. But it’s a funny love story, not a sci-fi.
EC I only know you through your films, and had no idea how funny you are! I just arrived here in Seoul two days ago and told my friend that I had an interview with you, and she gave me the book you wrote, Park Chanwook’s Montage. I was like, Oh shit, he has a book out? But I was howling reading your essays on your life, on movies, on your distaste for soccer and how you felt like a national traitor to Korea during the Korea-Japan World Cup series because your family was the only one not following the series.
PC I wrote not because I wanted to but because I had to make money when I was in college. Usually the way for college students to earn money in Korea is through private tutoring, but that got banned when I was in college. It was difficult to find work. I was having trouble finding money for my tuition. I had heard that American students earn their own money for school, and I thought to myself, My parents are aiding me with the tuition already; how can I ask them for an allowance? So I found a job writing for a film journal.
My first job was to create stories based on scripts of Hollywood movies before their release in Korea with subtitles. These stories would come out in little booklets bound inside film magazines and would get published as novels before the films premiered. In hindsight it made no sense at all! I’d never seen the movies, and my English isn’t that good. I’d make up these crazy stories in Korean. I remember finally getting to see Stake Out with Richard Dreyfuss and No Mercy with Kim Basinger and Richard Gere; they had totally different storylines from the ones I’d written! In its own way, this was my training ground for making films.
With this introduction to the film magazine world, I started writing critiques and reviews, and then to Choongmoo-ro [Korea’s Hollywood], where I was a first assistant director and started writing my own scripts. I eventually debuted as a director, but no one saw my movie and it failed commercially. At this point I had married, and to make money again I had to go back to writing reviews. Another couple of years went by. My second movie was another failure, then more years passed. During these two periods I appeared as a critic on TV, cable stations, radio—anything that had a program related to film.
EC During this time you wrote many of your own scripts?
PC Yes, I wrote a lot.
EC And the technical side of making movies, did you learn that while you were working as an AD in Choongmoo-ro?
PC I guess so. Being a good director is really less about the technical side.
EC And more about who you have working with you?
PC Yes, having a keen eye for that and knowing how to utilize the people around you well. You need a clear vision, for both sound and image, and to be able to communicate this vision well to others. The professionals will take care of realizing the technical side of things. For example, I’ll say something like, “I’d like this scene to be somewhat milky and unclear.” The DP will figure out what filter to use, the lighting, and so on. It doesn’t sound like it’s too hard, but in reality there are a lot of directors who don’t have visions.
EC You seem to be influenced by and know a lot about visual art; your specific camera angles remind me of Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, his painting of his studio bedroom where the angle is distorted and the space in the visual field feels oppressive. Did you ever study the visual arts?
PC A visual sensibility runs in my family. My father is an architect and my brother is a painter. As a child I would often go to galleries with my dad, and when I was young I vaguely thought that I would be a painter. But compared to my brother, I didn’t have much talent with my hands or in drawing. When I realized that, but still knew I had an eye for beauty, I wanted to become an art critic. If I couldn’t create myself, I wanted to discover talented artists and show their work to the world. I chose to study philosophy in college, art philosophy in particular. I chose the right direction but the wrong school; Sukang University didn’t really have any arts programs, and I lost interest.
EC I have never personally met an artist who comes from a critic’s background.
PC Well, I’m not like the French New Wave directors who were professional film critics and later became directors, such as Francois Truffaut or Eric Rohmer. I feel like I became a director first, then started writing so as not to starve!
EC I think your wife is amazing to have supported you during all those lean and hungry years.
PC Yes, and she is my major help in making films.
EC How so?
PC Well, she doesn’t get any official credits in my films—then I’d have to pay her (laughter). But Eun-Hee is influential from the very beginning with ideas about what the film could be like, through to the very end. She has very high standards and a discerning eye. In Lady Vengeance there is a Spanish song at the end that Ms. Kumja and her daughter sing, and my wife recommended that.
EC I see pictures here in your office of your daughter, she’s a young lady, not a child.
PC She’s going into sixth grade; she’s 13.
EC Do you let her watch your movies?
PC The only one I didn’t let her watch was Oldboy. If it were about a mother and son it might be okay, but since the story centers on an unwittingly incestuous relationship between a father and daughter, I just couldn’t bring myself to show it to her. But Lady Vengeance she watched three times.
EC What was the Korean audience’s reaction to the character Ms. Kumja, a seemingly everyday ahjum-ma [married or older woman] who turns into a murderess who survives prison to seek revenge on her husband? She is certainly not a classical heroine.
PC Of course the female audience liked it more than my usual male audience, but some female groups didn’t welcome it. For example, there is a Women in Film group that yearly selects positive female roles in film, and they didn’t respond to this movie. My movie was a bit jjim-jjim [colloquial: fishy, unsettling] for them. Ms. Kumja uses the inmates she met in jail for her own revenge; she doesn’t have a sisterhood based on love but uses these people for her own goal. She doesn’t care about them or think of their needs.
EC I loved Ms. Kumja’s character exactly because she had so many faults and freely expressed all of them and yet still seemed threatening. The character Ma-nyuh [the Witch] bullying another female inmate into performing oral sex on her was pretty shocking for a Korean movie. What were the audiences’ and the Korean Film Commission’s response?
PC I wanted this movie to be seen by an audience 15 years and older, but it ended up with an NC-17 rating, and that particular scene influenced the decision. Our perspectives are a bit different—the Korean Film Commission had less of a problem with the oral sex itself than with my portrayal of violence inside the jail system. They would have preferred to see the positive side, the inmates getting re-educated and well adjusted in order to go back out into society. They felt that young people shouldn’t see this other reality, even though it happens all the time. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen just because people don’t see it. But I didn’t put that scene in to be critical of the jail system; I don’t even think it’s that big of a deal. That’s why I let my then-12-year-old daughter watch it three times (laughter). Of course there will always be that gap between the filmmaker and the Film Commission members.
EC But it’s not been that long since the Commission allowed such scenes into mainstream movies like that, right?
PC Korean movies in terms of sex scenes have always been lenient.
EC Really? That’s not my recollection.
PC Of course, there are things like homosexuality that are not allowed, but that particular oral sex scene in Lady Vengeance wouldn’t have been a problem even back in the old days.
EC Do you know how the Korean Film Commission differs from that of other countries?
PC I don’t know the specifics. The U.S.’s association is not part of the government but a private entity, unlike Korea. Europe, I don’t know.
EC I know that the American and European film market is anxious to have you work with them. Any plans?
PC Europe is not that eager as they are also suffering with funding problems, but there have been many offers from the States. I’m not sure; I go back and forth. Most important is the language barrier. I’m not like John Woo, who does a lot of action-oriented movies, which I think makes that crossover more feasible. I try to evoke a certain subtlety, especially in communicating with actors. It’s hard enough to convey this with Korean actors. The Americans keep saying that a lot of foreigners come and make movies so it won’t be a problem, but I wonder. Also, I don’t think I’d have enough freedom. I’m told that final edit is not given to directors easily in America, especially if the budget gets larger. But if the budget is going to be small, there is no reason for me to go to Hollywood to make movies. There are some things, like a Western or a serious sci-fi, that I would love to do but can’t in Korea—there’s no background or support for that here, and the budget and technology is not as established as in Hollywood. The most important thing is the script, and I’ve been receiving those but haven’t found a good one yet.
EC Why don’t you write one yourself?
PC I am lazy. I could take six months to write something specifically with Hollywood in mind, but if the script is not accepted I probably wouldn’t be able to use it in Korea, and then it would be a waste. So I just keep waiting to get sent a good script. Maybe I’m being too laid-back about this, but I just don’t feel the immediate necessity to work in Hollywood yet. I have many ideas that I want to do in Korea and great actors here to work with. But when I see great actors like Johnny Depp, Robert Duvall, Michael Caine—that is a temptation.
EC Can you talk more about conversing with actors?
PC I think it’s too late if you are talking with your actors on set. You have to have spoken a lot with your actors before shooting. So we drink together a lot (laughter). Lee Young-ae does not drink so much, so that was a little difficult. We drank a lot of coffee instead.
Of course we do table reads, but we don’t talk only about the script but about a wide range of things. As a director, I want to see the actors’ daily behaviors when they are relaxed, what facial expressions they carry that the audience might not be familiar with.
With my two first, poorly reviewed movies—and I agree they were not good—I failed in communicating with my actors, because I didn’t respect them. I had studied Hitchcock’s movies, and I’m not sure how he dealt with actors, but his actors seemed to be stereotypical. I never felt that they were breathing entities but rather the director’s moving set pieces. When I was young and naive, I thought directors had to control all the elements of movie making, so I treated the actors that way too. I thought they were intellectually inferior. I tried to control everything the actor did—turning his or her head, walking this or that way—I had a lot of stupid and arrogant ideas that prevented me from having in-depth conversations with them.
After the two failed movies, I had an opportunity to shoot a short. I was so tired of introducing other people’s films as a critic and was dying to make another movie. I was so poor at the time, I set up a system with my wealthier friends: Monday you buy me lunch and dinner. I milked my working friends to buy meals for my crew and actors, whom of course I couldn’t pay. The actors were veterans from theater that I had begged to work with me. I gave a lot of thought to why my first two movies were so bad. I also started thinking about all the movies that I really liked. The ones that I watched more than three times all had “magnetic” actors in them. And they acted well.
I distinguish between these two qualities because not all magnetic actors are good actors. Clint Eastwood is horrible. He only has one expression. I don’t think Steve McQueen is that great of an actor either. But they’re very magnetic. I came to the conclusion that I was attracted to magnetic performers. So I decided to approach the short differently, and I used theater actors as an ensemble cast trapped in a room. All the actors were experienced and intelligent, and as I started talking with them, my respect for them grew. I later drew on that experience and used the same kind of ensemble cast in JSA, with the amazing actors Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-jun, Lee Young-ae, Kim Taehoon and Shin Ha-kyun. These five are now too expensive to ever have all together in one movie.
It was in mingling with these actors, drinking and talking with them every day (Lee Young-ae was still drinking at the time), that I finally awoke to their power and importance. Not all actors are like them, but the brilliant ones have an incredible intelligence for observing objects and people. My biggest pride as a filmmaker now is working and creating with actors. As a director, I worship them. I’ve totally changed.
I write and draw out a very detailed storyboard. I put in everything that I can possibly imagine so when I see my film at the end there is almost nothing that is different from the storyboard. I am that calculating. But the one thing I can’t calculate is the acting. Brilliant actors are not predictable. Normal people reading the script would think, “At this line I would cry,” but a good actor could do the absolute opposite and have that element of surprise. So I don’t explain the details: cry after three seconds. There are directors like that, and I think that is really foolish—but maybe you need that when you work with bad actors.
EC For a stage-trained actor like myself, your honest admission and thoughts on actors are very refreshing and a relief! Do you include a lot of rehearsal time?
PC Yes, and readings of the script. Do you know the actor Je-hyung Jung? He was in the movie Welcome to Dongmak-gol. Well, I was drinking with him and Shin Ha-kyun and they were telling me that some directors give directions that are totally incomprehensible. For example, in this one shot the director asked Jung to be sad for the first five seconds, then a little later to be scared, and then at the end to be humorous, but at the base of all these to convey some kind of pathos! Even the most genius actors can’t convey that. How can you be sad, happy and entertaining all at the same time? Some directors are too intellectual and heady. The more you listen the more confused you get. So I asked Shin and Jung, “After the director explains it to you like that, you just go off and do whatever you want when they shoot, right? And they both said, “Um, yes.” Then after the shoot, the director comes over and says, “Good job, that’s exactly what I wanted!”
Actors do whatever they want, although they always say “yes” to the directors. The communication, talking to each other, is very important. And to convey emotions simply. Of course when you see great actors it can feel like they are conveying complex emotions of anger, sadness and happiness all at once, but it is not simultaneous. It is the moment-to-moment quick changes that are happening with the shifts. And because those changes are happening seamlessly, the audience feels like the emotions are coexistent.
EC Watching Lady Vengeance, I was struck by my shortcomings in being able to reference Korean literature. I could draw influences and parallels to great Western classics like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex. But what classical Korean literature can we refer back to that influenced your movies of vengeance and tragedies?
PC We don’t have any.
PC The Korean literature that I like is the opposite of my films: stories about provincial life. My favorite writer is Moongu Lee, who wrote a lot about farmland. And I don’t think he has influenced my film work.
EC But you’re saying there is no Korean classical literature that deals with gory revenge-filled subject matter like the Jacobean tragedies? Maybe Han for us would be the closest? [Han encompasses emotions of regret, knotted anger and deep sorrow.]
PC We have tragedies related to war and colonization, but we don’t have a culture where one expresses anger in an aggressive way. I didn’t have any literature to refer to. And I find it stifling that we don’t have such traditions.
EC But now we have all these ultraviolent movies coming out of Korea, your trilogy included. Do you think because we have no other venue for this sort of expression that it’s bursting out in film?
PC Maybe. Aggression was always considered something to avoid. If you were vocal about your ideologies and political views and took action in regard to it, you could get in big trouble with the government. But when violence is used well in films, you get accolades and the audience feels a catharsis.
EC Don’t you think it’s because Korea has become more democratic and is now politically more liberal?
PC The anger that accumulated in the ’80s during our gongpo [fear] era is significant, because our artistic expression, especially with regard to politics, was limited, and violence was an everyday phenomenon that we had to deal with. You’d take the bus to work, and passing through the student demonstration area you’d witness bleeding protestors on the street. Reading the daily newspapers you’d learn about yet another person jumping off a building or bridge or someone lighting themselves on fire and committing suicide for political reasons or someone dying due to unjust torture. All these things happened in our daily life growing up in Seoul, and so we feared violence and thought the only way to deal with it was through perseverance and avoidance. The recent explosion of anger, I think, comes from the years of it being pent up inside. And the more democratized Korea became, the less reason for us to bottle it up.
Even though my films don’t deal with any specific political agenda, the reason I have this through-line of violence is due to the events I witnessed as a college student, and the fear and pain I felt during those times.
EC I found this quote of yours on the Internet Movie Database: “Basically, I’m throwing out the question ‘When is such violence justified?’ To get that question to touch the audience physically and directly—that’s what my goal is. In the experience of watching my films, I don’t want the viewer to stop at the mental or the intellectual. I want them to feel my work physically, viscerally. And because that is one of my goals, the title ‘exploitative’ will probably follow me around for a while.”
PC I remember saying the first part but not the second. I do want the viewer to be stimulated mentally and emotionally when they observe my work. But even more than that, to experience something physical, like cringing or being absolutely dead exhausted after watching my films. Watching a film shouldn’t be an easy, giggling, everyday experience but a really shocking, stimulating and at times painful experience. My violence is not like those in action films, where the fight sequences are beautiful and choreographed, or like those at the end of a revenge sequence with the villain, where it’s cathartic. My violence comes from the aggressor and the aggressee both being pained because of the violence to and from each other. I want this pain and sadness to be felt by my audience.
EC I think you’ve succeeded. I was exhausted after watching Oldboy, and even with Lady Vengeance I had the remote right next to me and hit mute or fast forward at certain points because I just couldn’t take it all in. Maybe that’s what you were talking about in terms of your films being “exploitative.” The word in English does have a negative connotation, though, and I think a simpler meaning than the profundity of the relationship of violence you’re describing.
Can you tell me more about your “If not, whatever” philosophy I read about in your book?
PC It’s not, Let’s just do whatever and not think of the consequences and wreak havoc. What I want to emphasize is: when you’ve tried something and it doesn’t work out, give up. We are often told that anything is possible with effort and work. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But in reality everyone knows that this is a lie. Yet people keep getting hoodwinked by this thought. So people get discouraged when things don’t go right and blame themselves for their lack of effort. “I should have tried harder.” But the truth is, that’s not the reality. There are circumstances that did not support you and you tried your best. Society leaves a kind of disease in the individual’s mind. Nothing good could comes out of self-blame. But people keep hanging onto things that are not possible, and no one can be happy under such circumstances. How good is that for our soul?
EC I was thinking of how I’d translate your expression. I, as an actor, have to continuously go out on auditions and most of them don’t stick. I could ponder and hem and haw about why it didn’t work out or what went wrong, but once it’s over I say to myself, What’s next? I think it’s similar to your “If not, whatever,” just a bit more active. We should combine the two: If not, whatever. Next!
Translated from the Korean by Esther K. Chae.
Esther K. Chae is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles. She was born in Eugene, Oregon, and grew up in Seoul, Korea. Between her TV, film, theater, modeling, producing and voice-over work, she has been seen and heard in the U.S., Korea, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Russia.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.