Park Chan-Wook isn’t just a master Korean filmmaker — he’s a force in international cinema, one of the greats of the early 21st century. His tonally audacious, highly-stylized films have become instant cult classics, from the widely beloved “Old Boy” of his Vengeance Trilogy, to the vampire priest epic “Thirst,” to his 2013 English language debut, “Stoker.” At the Marrakech International Film Festival presenting a master class, he also received a tribute to his work on Wednesday night. During his acceptance speech, he described cinema as the other woman in his life, an all-encompassing obsession that makes him feel as if he is constantly pregnant and giving birth to each of his films. While that metaphor is a bit out there, it captures his deeply thoughtful and all-encompassing approach to creating the films that have become cult classics.
We sat down with him at the festival to pick his brain about his upcoming film “The Handmaiden,” his experience working with Fox Searchlight on “Stoker,” his Hitchcockian influences, and his former work as a film critic.
One of our most hotly anticipated films of next year is Park’s “The Handmaiden,” the title he used for the movie that has long be referred to in the press as “The Handmaid.” We already know that it’s based on the Sarah Waters book “Fingersmith,” and Park has transposed the novel from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. He described the film as a “lesbian crime thriller,” and said that in terms of tone, the film will be “decadent. There’s a strong element of eroticism, and of course there will be humor.” He did take care to add that during this period of Japanese rule, “it was a very dark time” in Korea, so perhaps the film will have a historical socio-political bent as well.
The Korean film is a return to his native country after working with Fox Searchlight to release the English-language “Stoker,” starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, and Matthew Goode. Working with a Hollywood studio was a new experience for the auteur, and while he described the process of studio notes as painful, he also acknowledged the growth he achieved during the process. Park did say that after his first cut of “Stoker,” he was taken aback by some of the studio notes, but “after going through lots of arguments with the studio,” the result of all the back and forth was “a better movie because of that.” It wasn’t an easy process for him: “going through the arguments, going through the motions, it was painful, it was something that was not familiar for me. But having engaged in those heated arguments, it made me think more about the film, and it made me work more on the cut.” He described the version that was released as “the third option — not my first option, not the second option that the studio would suggest — a new solution.” He says he’s happy that this version “came from myself, it is something that I am satisfied by, and the process has certainly made me stronger.”
Park has no ill will towards Searchlight at all, saying, the people he worked worked with are, “not idiots. These people are very intelligent and they have the goal of making good films at the end of the day.” Throughout the notes process, he also realized that, “they are not the representation of one particular individual, but this is something that my future audience is telling me. This is me getting a preview of what my future audience is saying, and it allowed me to approach it with a different attitude.”
Take a gander at Park’s IMDB page and you’ll see plenty of upcoming projects in development, but aside from “The Handmaiden,” he didn’t have details on other future English-language projects saying, “I’m reading many English language scripts, I have read hundreds of them, of the hundreds, there are a few that I’m working on at the same time, and whenever they are ready to go into production, whenever they get the financing for it, I will make an English language film.” Of course, when it comes to financing, Park said, “it has to be the right amount of financing to make the best version of those particular films as possible.” So he keeps a lot of irons in the fire so that he can be ready to go into production when the money goes through. When asked if there were any American actors he’d like to work with, Park happily suggested his fellow Marrakech honoree, Bill Murray.
Of all the English-language projects that he’s been rumored to be attached to, one of the most intriguing possibilities was the rumor that he was attached to a version of “The Revenant” with Samuel L. Jackson. But he laughed those off, saying “I remember a conversation where it was brought up, but at the time I was trying to do another Western film [possibly “The Brigands of Rattleborge,” penned by “Bone Tomahawk” screenwriter S. Craig Zahler?], so I remember not paying so much attention to it at the time.” However, he has seen the trailer for Iñárritu’s film, and said, “I’m really excited, I look forward to seeing that film.” Imagine what he could have done with the bear attack.
Park’s films are known for a vibrant, striking visual style, with an edge of the blackest humor cutting through the bleak crime genre films. It’s no surprise then that during his master class, he cited Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as the film that made him want to become a filmmaker. Expanding on his interest in Hitchcock’s films and his influence, Park said that though “they are genre films, they have a surreal element to them, and they contain a certain sense of absurdity. In the most unexpected moments, he would dole out mischievous or very cruel humor.”
Around the time he saw “Vertigo,” as a college student, Park started a film club, wrote about film, and eventually became a film critic. But he was a frustrated filmmaker when he was working as a critic, which informed his approach to writing. He said, “I never really criticized any films, it’s just that I felt the time spent writing about films I didn’t like was time wasted, so I would only write about films that I liked in the first place.” His future ambitions also informed his writing, and Park bluntly said “inside I was still a filmmaker who wanted to someday get a project financed, so I didn’t want to upset any producers, importers or distributors by writing a bad review about one of their films.”
In fact, as a critic, he tried to be a champion for under seen films or cinematic punching bags, saying, “I would bring out the true value of those films and why they should be reevaluated.” One example of a film that received the Park Chan-Wook defense and reevaluation? “Exorcist II: The Heretic.” With his endorsement, we’d give that one another shot.