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A Conversation With Thirst Director Park Chan-wook

On Catholicism, revenge, and how to make tasty fake blood.

Park Chan-wook was in New York this month, and he found himself a little disappointed. It was, he says, “a great pity” that he hadn’t found time to attend a performance at Carnegie Hall. Instead, Park’s time was busy delivering a different sort of culture to American audiences: his latest film, a vampire story Thirst. The film stars veteran Korean leading man Song Kang-ho a Sang–hyun, a Catholic priest who deliberately infects himself with a virulent disease in the hope that doctors can learn from him and save thousands of others. Sang falls in love with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), and they do all the normal stuff: mahjong and family dinners, bathtub amputations and blood cocktails, harvested directly from the source.

Park, the director the brutal “vengeance trilogy” ( Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), says he’s influenced by lots of things, including Greek tragedy. His brand of deep thinking about people has resulted in a series of multi-layered genre pics. On the surface his characters are revenge nuts and vampires. Beneath they’re men and women motivated by evergreen human desires. He’s become a major star at home and a major success abroad; Thirst won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year.

With help from a translator, Park spoke recently about Catholicism, revenge and how to make tasty fake blood.

I understand that you’ve been thinking about this film for quite a while.

I started thinking about it during the production of J.S.A. (Joint Security Area, which came out in 2000). At the time I was thinking about doing two separate films, and one of them was this film. I didn’t have much of the detail other than who the protagonist will be and how he will be turned into a vampire. And also that he will fall in love with a woman, and I (also) knew how she would be turned into a vampire. So basically I had two sequences in my mind. Other than these two details there were big blanks there.

I was telling this story to my actor So ng Kang-ho, who I was having drinks with after J.S.A. wrapped one day. I told him ideas for both of these two films—one was Thirst, of course, and then the other was one was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. And Song Kang-ho didn’t like either of them. But he ended up doing both.

Why a priest?

When I was very little I went to a Catholic church, and a priest is a vocation that I was able to observe very closely. These are the people who live a life of celibacy and sacrifice everything in the name of serving God and the name of serving mankind. But I didn’t think they were without any desires. I just thought it would be impossible for them not to be tempted by anything, and I wondered about how they dealt with these issues—how they would overcome these temptations, or how they might succumb to these temptations.

Do you consider this to be a horror film, or any of the others that you’ve made to be horror films? I’ve read that you don’t.

How important is that distinction? At the end of the day it only means: under what section will my DVD be at a video rental place? I don’t mind however my films are categorized, and I don’t have in my mind that I’m making a horror film.

Who’s in charge of all the fake blood?

Our art department, they came up with the fake blood. It’s made of grape juice and a few other ingredients, and apparently it’s very sweet. My actors enjoyed drinking it very much, although I haven’t tasted it myself. The only thing aesthetically I asked of my art department is try and make it look like it has the texture and the color of burgundy wine. The “Vengeance trilogy”—what about the idea of revenge is so interesting to you?

Vengeance is a very interesting subject indeed. If you think about it, it’s an act where you invest a lot of efforts to achieve something that is meaningless. No good, constructive outcome can be expected from revenge. It doesn’t mean that a loved one will somehow be revived and come back to you from the grave, nor will you get back the time you have been incarcerated in a prison. And yet people who are trying to take revenge, they are willing to sacrifice everything they have in their lives—even the rest of their lives—to achieve something so meaningless. It’s only the human beings out of all the creatures in the world which engage in such a useless enterprise.

You’ve had a lot of luck with international audiences. Do you think that’s because no matter what movie you’re making, you’re always dealing with timeless human concerns like lust or love or vengeance?

If it is true that people from all over the world are interested in my films, it is not because I have set out to reach audiences across borders, but more that I have tried to create films that are timeless. I am influenced by classics and mythology, so being influenced by these I wanted to create stories that would survive in the future as well. It is my aim to create films which would last into the future.

Vampire stories in film and on TV happen to be very popular in America at the moment. How will Thirst differentiate itself?

A: I haven’t seen these films so it’s very hard to compare. But making guesses based on what I heard others say about these films, Thirst probably differentiates itself by not having the things you would expect to find in a conventional vampire film, such as fangs and the garlic and turning into bats. Taking out any mythical elements of the vampire story and actually dealing with it in a more biological way, at an almost existential level, is different.

I’ve read Steven Spielberg and Will Smith plan to remake Old Boy. What do you think of the idea, and what’s the status of the movie?

I only know as much as you do. Honestly, I haven’t heard anything.

Generally, then, what do you think about the idea of an American filmmaker remaking one of your films?

A: I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I can’t wait to see these films if they’re made. As a story from one culture travels to another culture, how the story changes is what I’m most interested in. I myself have taken a Japanese comic book (which became Old Boy) and did with it whatever I wanted to, changing lots of elements of the story. And I’ve done the same with a French novel (Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin inspired Thirst). So it interests me to see how different filmmakers from other parts of the world, from different cultural backgrounds, would change the films that I have made.

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