Interview With Director Park Chan-wook
By Paolo Bertolin
VENICE _ Winner of the Gran Prix du Jury at Cannes Film Festival last year, where he was competing with his masterful, yet controversial "Old Boy", Park Chan-wook
is regarded as one of the most representative directors of South Korean cinema today. This consideration rightfully stems from his confirmed ability in combining the commercial with the artistic, as his films have been gathering mass audiences at home, while collecting critical praise and festival exposure overseas.
Park first hit big in 2000 with "JSA - Joint Security Area", a complex thriller set in DMZ that provided South Korean audiences with the first depiction of North Korean soldiers as brothers of a divided nation. The film was a landmark success in South Korea, and was invited to compete in Berlin Film Festival in 2001.
Park's follow-up, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" inaugurated his trilogy on revenge, receiving an enthusiastic critical response, but failing at the box office. Released in 2003, the second segment of the trilogy, "Old Boy", proved instead an instant hit in Korea, and a popular new cult movie from Asia, supported by Quentin Tarantino, who chaired the jury in Cannes.
The much-awaited final installment of the trilogy "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" was released in Korea earlier this July, with enthusiastic response from domestic audiences. The film is now in competition at the Venice Film Festival where it sparked heated discussion among international critics, as did "Old Boy" last year in Cannes.
Question: In Korea "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" has been the most successful among the films composing your trilogy on revenge. Why do you think it best connected with local audiences?
Answer: "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" was a commercial failure, while "Old Boy" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" have been box office hits. "Lady Vengeance" is also slightly more successful than "Old Boy". The main reason why "Lady Vengeance" struck a chord with Korean audiences might depend on its lead Lee Young-ae
, who is very popular in Korea. What is interesting, though, is that Korean audiences were especially curious about her counter-casting in "Lady Vengeance". Lee, in fact, is usually portrayed as a kind-hearted, demure and intelligent woman, whereas this is a violent film where she has become an angel of vengeance.
Q: What is usually your stance toward the depiction of violence in your films?
A: Actually, I personally do not like to shoot violent sequences. When shooting and editing my films I always think whether depictions of violence are necessary. Only if I conclude they are necessary, and if the impact they might exert on audiences is painful enough, only then do I resolve to include them in the film. I never try to beautify violence in my films; instead, I always try to make viewers feel uneasy about it.
Q: What about the theme of vengeance, of revenge, which you made the common thread of your trilogy?
A: When dealing with revenge in my films I never care whether vengeance is right or wrong, that is not the crucial issue. Instead, I like to question the urge or need for revenge by people living in a modern society. At some point in "Old Boy" there is even one line where I imply that taking revenge is good for your mental health. For desolate people who harbor negative feelings, the very idea of taking revenge on the injustice they experienced can feel like a relief. The pursuit of vengeance itself is of course only destructive, but the imagination, the projection of vengeance can make lives of people who are suffering more sustainable. Enacting vengeance can bring bitterness and destruction, yet just maintaining inside yourself the idea of vindication can make your life less painful.
Q: The international title, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" differs quite significantly from the original Korean one, "Chinjolhan Kumjassi (The Kind-hearted Miss Kum-ja)". It seems to me the international one misses the clear ironic connotation of the original. How were the titles chosen?
A: The first film of the trilogy, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" is now quite well known in the West, and when making the third episode we thought it could be easier to market the film to Western audiences, if we'd call it "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance". I particularly liked that title, thus, since here the protagonist is a woman, we just switched the Mr. to Lady. It is true that the Korean title best captures the irony in the film, also because Korean audiences are aware of Lee usually being portrayed as kind-hearted, while in this film she's not so kind-hearted. Yet, the Korean title might seem to overlook the very violent and dark side of the film, so both titles account only partially for the film as a whole.
Q: What about irony in the film? Is this way to foster sympathy?
A: In the film lots of people support Kum-ja on her path to vengeance. As the film progresses her relevance slowly diminishes, while other minor characters take greater and greater space. The film as a whole is meant as a miniature of a given society, and by saying this I don't imply just Korea, but any society. When looking at people living in any society, you might find some people who are serene, some other who are desperate in their struggle for life. If you look at people long enough they might become sinister to you, or just funny, you might laugh at them, you might feel sorry for them, and eventually you might feel sympathy.
Q: A Hollywood remake of "Old Boy" is now underway. You affirmed that you would approve this kind of venture only if the remake brought something new to the original film, rather than just remaking it in a different language. But what would be your reaction if you were offered to work in Hollywood?
A: Through my career I have made films from original scripts, based on adaptations of novels and even of a man-hwa (Korean for comic book), and in the future I don't exclude the possibility I might even work on a script written by someone else. I regard myself as open-minded concerning my future prospects and what is always determinant for me is the quality of the script. If a script I receive is good I am available to move anywhere, even to another planet. In any case, I don't feel confined or dissatisfied at all about staying in Korea.
Q: Now that you have completed your trilogy, are you already planning a new film?
A: I am currently developing a project set in a mental institution. There lives a girl who thinks she is a cyborg. The film tells of her encounters with other diverse psychotics, and she even falls in love with another, who is interned with her. Although the international title has not yet been chosen, the Korean one should be "Cyborg itjiman Kwenchana", "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK".