Vampires, vengeance and a red alert: A master class with Park Chan-wook

The cult film director was interrupted in the middle of his master class at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival.

Park Chan-wook (photo credit: Courtesy)
Park Chan-wook
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was a scene too tame for one of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s movies, but it nevertheless had a certain drama: In the middle of his master class Saturday evening at the 31st Jerusalem Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the siren sounded, alerting the roomful of film geeks and critics to an incoming missile over the city.
But the cult film director, best known for the violent revenge drama Oldboy (2003), and a host of other quirky films including Thirst (2009), about a priest who turns into a vampire, stood calmly, waiting to get a signal that was it all right to continue. Even before the alert was over, his fervent fans couldn’t stop themselves from pumping him with questions, some of which were about Stoker, his latest film, which had just been shown for the first time in Israel. Stoker stars Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska in a creepy story of violence and betrayal in an American family.
“He is so surprised that there is really a war,” said Dr. Jooyeon Rhee, a professor of Korean history, culture and film at the Hebrew University, who was acting as a translator for the director.
Sitting back down, Park, 50, picked up exactly where he had left off, answering a question about whether his 2006 film, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, about two mental patients who fall in love, could be considered a romantic comedy.
“It is a kind of romantic comedy, but really it’s free of any genre identification... I was thinking while I was making it [that] therapists have to pull themselves into the illusions of the patient.”
A little later, he did speak for a moment about the tense situation in Israel.
“I don’t know much about the Israeli condition, I have a general knowledge about it.
Yesterday I was having a good time with Pablo [Utin, a film critic who moderated Park’s master class] and other friends and I thought there are only two places on earth where you will still drink and eat while a rocket falls right beside you – Israel and Korea. When people look at the military situation in Korea through the media, people overreact, although there are lots of tragedies and hurtful memories. I think that a filmmaker can and should deal with that reality.”
While many at the master class were keenly interested in the technical aspects and effects in his films – he fielded questions on such topics as whether he used “sub-sonic sound” in Thirst (which, for the record, he did not) – he gave a few glimpses of the ostensibly mild-mannered artist behind the horrifically scary and extraordinarily original movies.
Asked about the main character in Thirst, which he acknowledged was his favorite of his films, he said, “He is indecisive about whether he can live ruthlessly, live the life of a vampire, he vacillates between killing or not killing. I think that character is similar to me.”
Recalling the protests against the military regime in the Eighties, Park said he was torn over whether to take part in them or not.
“I feared I would get hurt. I couldn’t act, so I would come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t act.”
Oddly, this director, whose tense, violent fight scenes have already inspired a generation of younger filmmakers (as well as Hollywood: Oldboy was remade by Spike Lee last year with Josh Brolin), said, “I don’t like to make action films.” Asked about the famous hallway fight scene in Oldboy, he said, “To shoot a fighting scene, if I feel it’s necessary, I want to do it well. I challenge myself. I decided to create the most splendid, awesome and complicated scene,” which he then made into a storyboard. Like Hitchcock, the director he acknowledges as one of his main influences, he storyboards all his films in great detail.
The corridor scene “was not about a fight but a way to escape,” and the actor, Min-sik Choi, truly exhausted himself and collapsed after the first take. “By the end of the fight, you see this fatigue. That’s not acting,” Park said.
Park, who was raised Catholic and studied philosophy in university (“but I didn’t really study because I was so into filmmaking”), spoke generously of the actors, cinematographers and sound-design artists with whom he has collaborated, and who have contributed to the success of his films.
“The people I work with understand my philosophy,” he said.
He told the many aspiring filmmakers in the audience that “accuracy is most important – think how will you deliver emotion or a story accurately... everyday life is difficult to express... it’s a challenge. Do not fall into conventionality.”
That said, Park was refreshingly modest about his own accomplishments.
“I don’t really watch my films again [after making them]. But sometimes I have to and when I do, I feel so ashamed I want to collect all the DVDs and burn them.”
Judging from the laugh he got, his legions of fans hope Park will never get the chance to do this.