Park Chan-wook isn't exactly a household name in the West, but the South Korean director has been on something of a cinematic roll since "Oldboy," his Kafkaesque tale of murder, manipulation and revenge, won the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Not bad for a guy who majored in philosophy in college and has no formal film training. Working as a film critic after graduating from Seoul's Sogang University, Park decided he'd rather make films than critique them. He took a position as an assistant director in the late '80s and made his first feature, "The Moon Is the Sun's Dream," in 1992.
His third film, 2000's "J.S.A.: Joint Security Area" — a masterful murder-mystery involving four North and South Korean soldiers stationed along the demilitarized zone dividing the two countries — broke box-office records in his own country and tagged him as a filmmaker to watch. His next picture, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (2002), a quietly brutal tale of a botched kidnapping and the cycle of revenge that follows, didn't fare as well at the box office but garnered critical acclaim around the world. That film initiated his now-celebrated "Vengeance Trilogy," which continued in "Oldboy" (2003) and concludes with this year's "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" — almost certain to become the highest grossing film ever released in Korea.
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MTV: Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of your films, presiding over the panel that awarded "Oldboy" the Grand Jury prize at Cannes last year. Are there any American filmmakers — either currently working, or filmmakers from the past — whose work you follow or particularly admire?
Park: I was not one of those manic fans who would die for the movies. I was a boy who was fascinated with Hollywood's movie stars, just like every other boy and girl of my age back then. When I was a middle school student in love with Paul Newman, I had gone to a theater to watch "The Towering Inferno" with a teacher. After the movie, I came out with a sort of a dazzled look, but the teacher was not that excited. I was surprised, and asked why. The teacher said, "Well, it's just another Hollywood movie. But there are a lot of directors in Europe with profound visions and individuality."
That was the moment I learned about the people called "directors." I began to develop my interest in the European cinema. A few months ago, I put aside the post-production work on "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" to go, every day, and see a retrospective of Robert Aldrich films [Aldrich is the director of the original "Longest Yard," "Kiss Me Deadly," "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and other harsh classics]. I participated in a symposium on the last day, and made my admiration for the director known. Aldrich made "Hollywood movies," yes, but [to me] he was not just another director.
MTV: You clearly draw on your philosophy background — and on artists and thinkers like Kafka, Sophocles, Shakespeare — in that your films all deal with basic, elemental questions about human nature. But which movie directors, or specific films, influenced you as a filmmaker?
Park: I certainly want to mention the director Kim Ki-young, who passed away a few years ago. One of his movies, "Hanyo," or "The Housemaid," gives me shocks even when I see it now, though it was made back in 1960. I became a fan after I encountered his genius through his own remake of "Hwanyeo '82" ("The Woman of Fire") in the early '80s. The Korean public doesn't even remember his name today, but if he made movies now, when Korean movies are drawing international attention, [he would be considered] one of the most important filmmakers in the world.
MTV: Vengeance, of course, is a universal concept, cutting across all societies. What was your initial inspiration in creating your "Vengeance Trilogy"? Was there a specific element of revenge that fascinated you?
Park: The act of vengeance is a meaningless one. Killing the villain does not bring back the dead. Even the stupidest person knows that. But despite that, people are still captivated by a desire to avenge. And it's not easy to walk away when the means are provided to "pay back."
[But on top of that,] vengeance requires a tremendous passion and energy. People have to abandon their other everyday activities in order to cling to that purpose only. Why do people want to devote their whole life to this meaningless, fruitless thing? Is this incomprehensible, dark passion the human characteristic, distinguishing us from other animals? And yet vengeance is also enacted in everyday life. For example, I can refuse to give an interview to certain media which might have been very critical of one of my movies.
MTV: You've said that the main plotting for your movies is sometimes done in an instant. Do you find, as you mature as a filmmaker, that the same dynamic holds true? Do you have the same energy and use the same methods that you did when making your first few films?
Park:: The script for "Lady Vengeance" was completed [very quickly,] if not as quickly as that of "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." Now, I am working on two scripts at the same time. But it is natural that I have more energy and passion than when I was making my first few films. Kids practice the piano more fiercely or draw paintings more energetically when they are praised. I am like that. Don't all artists have some childlike aspects?
MTV: What are some of your upcoming film projects? A comedy, perhaps? Do you have any plans or hopes to make a film in the U.S.?
Park: One of my next projects is about a delusional girl who thinks she is a combat cyborg and is hospitalized in a mental institution. She falls in love with a boy she meets there. It is a teen romantic comedy with a lot of fantasy scenes. Other than that, I am working on a vampire movie. About English language movies, my present thought is, "It's not that I've decided not to make one someday, but I have no plans to do so just now."
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