'Nicole Kidman's Kindness Inspired Me,' Says Korean Master Park Chan-wook

The director, in Israel for the Jerusalem film festival, tells Haaretz about his move to the United States, the ethics of revenge and the pleasure of working with Nicole Kidman.

A still image from the film 'Stoker.'Courtesy

At least one experience will be etched in the memory of Park Chan-wook, the great Korean film director, from his visit to the Jerusalem International Film Festival a few days ago.

“I’ll never forget the siren that went off in the middle of the master class I was teaching,” he told Haaretz through an interpreter, laughing. “If there are two countries in the world where people stay seated and keep talking about films when there’s a missile threat, it’s Israel and Korea.”

The tension between the two Koreas has a special place in Park’s career. His 2000 film “Joint Security Area,” about the investigation of a firing incident in the demilitarized zone, became the most successful film in Korean history.

His next efforts were critically acclaimed box-office hits. “Oldboy,” part of his violent “vengeance” trilogy, won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, while vampire film “Thirst” won the Jury Prize there in 2009. His visit to the Jerusalem festival was brief but very busy; besides interviews with the foreign media, official dinners and screenings of his films, he took part in two gatherings where his work and Korean cinema were discussed.

The fact that vengeance is a main theme in Park’s work is particularly interesting because justice and righting wrongs are central themes in contemporary Korea, which, following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, is suffering the fallout of neoliberal economics. Although South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world, the people lack confidence about the future and are sick of all the corruption. It’s no surprise that films about corruption and injustice attract more than 10 million viewers in the country of around 50 million people.

“According to the Bible, the idea of revenge, an eye for an eye, best reveals human nature,” Park said at one of the gatherings at the festival. “I’m interested in expressions of human nature through revenge. It’s a gateway to human nature. In Korean society people have lost their trust in the legislators, the police and wealthy businessmen, and maybe they fantasize about revenge. I think many of them enjoy watching acts of revenge on the big screen, though I think the idea of revenge is universal.”

Park says morality is the most important subject in his vengeance films. “Revenge is an instrument for raising questions about morality. The idea is that the hero and the audience are involved in a moral dilemma in which every choice is bad,” he said at one of the gatherings, which were moderated by film critic and researcher Pablo Utin, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television. Among the participants was Dr. Jooyeon Rhee of Hebrew University’s Department of East Asian Studies.

A little bit of Hitchcock

Last year, after a raft of successes in Korea, Park — whose films have been greatly influenced by American cinema — first directed an American film, “Stoker,” starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska. Although it received lukewarm reviews and wasn’t a box-office success, Park got his revenge, as it were. He’s currently negotiating to direct a Western in Hollywood and hopes to direct more films in English.

“It makes no difference if you’re an independent artist or part of the industry, everyone wants to have a larger audience, and there’s access to a far larger audience in the United States,” he told Haaretz.

“I worked on the vampire movie ‘Thirst’ for almost a decade, and when I finished in 2009 a chapter was over for me and a new chapter had to begin. I thought the time had come to take a look at new things. Many people from Hollywood approached me and I read a lot of scripts. When I found one I liked, I thought the time had come to make a film in America.”

Because he lacks fluency in English, his main concern was the language barrier. “But when the work began it soon stopped being a problem. We needed a good interpreter, but our anchor was the script that we divided among ourselves,” he says.

“We’re all experts in the same discipline, so it was easy for us to communicate. We often forgot that an interpreter was there; after a while the actors understood me without words. We had instinctive communication that required no translation.”

Park says Kidman and Wasikowska were his first choices for the film; he didn’t even audition them. In previous interviews he has mentioned Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as the film that has influenced him the most; sure enough, he chose Kidman, who just this year played Grace Kelly, a Hitchcock favorite, for “Stoker.” He conducted an hour-long conversation on Skype with Matthew Goode, who plays Wasikowska’s uncle, to get a feel for the Englishman and his approach to the script.

Can you talk about the difference working with American actors compared to Koreans?

“Nicole turned out to be a very warm and caring person; it was important to her that I felt comfortable, because it was a small artistic film, and also because I’m Korean and this was my first film in the United States. And maybe also because we filmed near her home, so she felt a bit like a hostess. I was inspired by her kindness.

“Nicole has a lot of experience working with many great directors; this experience is part of her. I felt I wasn’t only working with Nicole Kidman, but with all her experiences from working with other directors, like Stanley Kubrick. There’s more to her than you see. Mia was always very calm despite her age. She tried to learn many new things and had lots of questions. Actually, she reminded me of Korean actresses, because she’s very down to earth.”

Park adds that there’s a big difference between the East and West when it comes to filmmaking, mainly in the status of directors.

“The schedule in the United States is very tight; everything has to happen quickly and we can’t discuss things as I like to do with actors in Korea. Fortunately we had time to talk a little about [‘Stoker’] a week before the filming. In the United States the actors have no time to give you feedback; they wait for instructions and do what the director tells them to do. When I told colleagues in Korea about that they said it sounded very nice to them, that the actors simply do what you ask them,” he says.

“A major difference is that in Europe and Asia directors are the focus of filmmaking, but in the United States it’s different because the studio is the dominant power. I remember that Ang Lee once said that in Asia and Europe the director is king and in the United States he’s president. He has to keep convincing parliament.”

So you identified a bit with Barack Obama’s problems with the Republicans?

“Yes,” he says laughing.

Park closes his fists and rubs them together when talking about the travails working with the studios. “It’s a very difficult process. If Plan A is what the director wants, and Plan B is what the studios want, you have to think how to reduce this gap and arrive at Plan C. This happens via an immense compromise and long negotiations, but it’s worth it. The fact that I arrive at C the way it turns out is satisfying, but look how many white hairs I have on my head.”

The colonization of America

In the meantime, Park has been planning a Western for years; apparently another stage in a career full of blood and cruelty. “When I was young I would watch American films mainly on television, and they had a great influence on me. I really liked the lonely figure of the cowboy; the genre and the elements from which it is constructed fascinated me,” he says.

“When I became an adult I continued to think about the idea of the Western and was preoccupied by how America became an imperial nation. That was something I wanted to research. I was interested mainly in the colonization of the Indians and the legalization of bearing arms. This made me think about the violence at the foundation of the building of the American nation. I don’t want to criticize America, I want to go to the source of its thoughts and desires, like the desire to bear arms.”

Aside from the films he’s directing in the United States, last year an American version of “Oldboy” came out, directed by Spike Lee. Unlike the original, a big success worldwide, Lee’s version starring Josh Brolin was a dismal failure.

When asked about Lee’s version Park fidgets on the sofa. “The truth is I haven’t seen the film yet,” he says. “I wasn’t in Korea when it came out, and I didn’t have time to go to the movies. I’ll try to see it on DVD.”

Another of Park’s American adventures, this time as a producer, is “Snowpiercer,” directed by Bong Joon-ho. The film, starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, opened in limited distribution in the United States a few weeks ago and has already earned more than $80 million worldwide.

It’s an apocalyptic allegory describing a failed attempt to battle global warning. The world is covered in snow; the only people who survived are on a train belonging to a wealthy corporation that speeds around in circles. In the back are the poor and exploited workers; in the front are the rich who live in a world of abundance.

Does the film relate to Confucianism or Korea’s corruption problems? And is it basically a Korean film but an American production?

“The intention was not to make a Korean film. We didn’t want to use Korean elements, we simply wanted to find ways to make a film directed by a Korean with his artistic vision and to understand how to sell it in Hollywood. The film is based on a French graphic novel. We weren’t thinking about Korea in particular. But I have to think about that, whether it’s a Korean film filmed in English, or simply an American film. I’m not sure. In any case, in the films I direct I don’t use Korean elements like jokes. I think about how an international audience will receive my work.”

Park says many people think his creative process begins with visual images because of his films’ meticulous aesthetics. “Actually, first of all, I’m interested in the stories, then I think how to develop them and present them in a way that’s effective and economically feasible.”

He mentions the scene in “Thirst,” his favorite among his films, in which a priest turns into a vampire.

“I wanted blood emerging from every aperture of his body when he became a vampire, but since he was wearing clothes that wasn’t possible. So I decided that the blood would emerge from the holes of the recorder he was playing, the same recorder with which he comforted patients at the hospital. So the blood and the recorder have several uses in the film. That was also important to me in terms of saving money.”