Director Park Chan-wook made a name for himself amongst genre fans with his violent, poetic "Vengeance" Trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. Now the Korean filmmaker is tackling horror with his acclaimed new vampire saga Thirst. The tale of a Catholic priest who's turned into a vampire and forced to live off of human blood, Thirst represents a new kind of breakthrough for Park, combining the exploitation thrills of his earlier work with a smart, solid story. We joined a couple of other journalists and chatted with Park this week about his appreciation for vampires and his passion for depicting human beings operating under extreme circumstances. Hit the jump for the full interview.
How did you balance between the humor and the seriousness of what you were doing?
Ten years ago I couldn't dream that I would end up with a film like this because at the time I was determined to make a humorless film. I told myself that I would make the darkest and most serious film in the history of cinema. But a filmmaker's tendencies and personality isn't something that can be changed by determination, because even though I decided to make this very serious film, I wound up making something like this. With the given character in a film, the more they struggle or the more they jump around with rage or they become the subject of violence or tremble in fear in anticipation of such violence or when they are grieved with sorrow…in this situation you just shift the angle of it a little bit. If you change the point of view or if you change the size of zoom, you are able to capture humor in that situation. There's not much difference between something that is dark and serious and something that is humorous.
Why, at this point in your career, are you dealing with the supernatural? Has something been that was drawing you in that direction?
This film is something I have been thinking about for a long time, it's not as if I just came up with this film now and said we need something like this. For a vampire film, this is the most realistic approach for a vampire film, and by decreasing the amount of supernaturalism in this film I feel I was able to meet in the middle point. I brought down the supernaturalism in this film to meet with a lot of surrealism. Fantastical elements in my films have been in the increase. On one hand, you could say that this is part of that progression, to reach a first like this. I am bringing down the supernaturalism or fantastical element you usually associate with vampires, down to the right level so that it is part of that progression. For example, in the film, when they are playing Mahjong at the house, Sang-hyeon comes down the stairs for a secret rendezvous with Tae-joo, the female lead. All of their active love-making stops and she walks back upstairs. Sang-hyeon walks out of the traditional costume shop and jumps up to grab a window ledge of the bathroom, and this is seen from a very high angle. This is achieved through wire-action. In your usual vampire film his movements would be graceful, but in this film, the way he holds onto the ledge, there's something awkward about it and he doesn't quite get the timing right and his body swerves to one side. So although there is supernatural in this film, I wanted to differentiate it from others.
What attracted you especially to vampires, and vampire mythology?
Of course this film started from being a story about a Catholic priest and a vampire was something that was brought in in order to put this Catholic priest through the most heinous trial imaginable. But if you ask me what elements about vampires in general I find interesting, it's not about these vampires being immortal or them having super powers or them being very beautiful, but it's the fact that they can only drink blood and only be nocturnal, only go around during the night. So it's very limiting in what they can do, so they are to be sympathized with. These poor creatures have all these limitations placed on them, limitations they did not seek.
In many films, the men are the ones going crazy while the women are the ones that reel them in. But in this movie you have a woman who gets to be completely insane.
Maybe it's because all of the women around me are like that. I would like to bring out the female characters and treat them more like the male characters compared with how women are traditionally described in films and compared with the female characters in my other films. When I say this, I don't mean that I want to put them in this good-role- model-type character. I think that you aren't really treating them right when you do that. Sometimes my female characters are given these personalities that are crazy or just plain bad. By doing this, I feel like I am treating my female characters right and doing them justice.
Have you ever read Dracula?
Ten years ago.
As an artist, as a director, what is your lineage for horror films when you approached this movie? What informed you?
Not having gone through film school and being someone who studied film on my own, when I was a young director in Korea, I was able to have access to films released at the cinema and through video, and these would be all of your latest Hollywood films. I didn't really get the opportunity to watch all these classic films that you would find in film-study textbooks. I only could access these films through reading about them in books. So you could say I don't have any tradition or study of them. It was really here and there. I would ask people going overseas if they would bring back videos on their way back and that sort of thing. So I was not aware of all this heritage of cinema. For instance, before I could see any of the classic films, I would see the Coen Brothers' films first…
The film deals with a relationship within a family that ultimately proves more destructive than the forces outside that family. In this it shares something with your past work and also with the great American horror films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. For you, does the family hold the greatest potential for destruction within society?
If you look at the family dynamics from Tae-joo's point of view, you could make that observation. If you read the dialogue where it says she was raised as a dog or she says her family's definition of marriage was that she was sleeping with the mother, and one day after her marriage ends, she is sleeping in the bed of her son. So for this character, marriage is a kind of prison or hell that she is trapped in. And if you're looking at it from that perspective, your observation would be valid. But if you look at it from Sang-hyeon's point of view, the argument is more religious or has to do with the condition of a human being. For Sang-hyeon, just like the idea of vampires or the notions that originate from the West that made their way into Korea, Sang-hyeon is an outside element that penetrates into this family, a very poised family; and just like a virus enters the body, a vampire's blood would also be an external element that comes into your system and changes you into something else entirely. So one of the main things about the film is the external elements that come into an internal environment and seeing how the internal environment reacts. An interesting result of these two characters meeting is looking how this mother-in-law changes from this typical bad character and how she changes after her paralysis. After her paralysis, she observes these two characters with eyes that are reminiscent of the eyes of God, for instance. Before she went paralyzed, she was this very active person who would be talkative, very energetic, slapping her around. But after being paralyzed, all she can do is observe and look at these two characters. In her eyes, you feel the omnipresent powers of a god. She almost becomes this godly being, where she observes those characters and through those observations affects the characters as well. For instance, Sang-hyeon is jolted by the way she looks at him while he's drinking Tae-joo's blood. The way she has these ever-present eyes that are always there looking at you. This is a dramatic result of [the two characters] meeting up.