Interview: Park Chan-Wook
South Korean Director Talks About His First American Film
Friday, March 15, 2013
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Park Chan Wook's first American film, "Stoker."
The name “Stoker” may conjure up images of Bram and Dracula but in Park Chan Wook’s film, it refers to a rich American family where blood – both in terms of lineage and gore -- plays a pivotal role. The trailer opens with this line from a mother to her teenage daughter.
“Personally, I can’t wait to see life tear you apart.”
The line is both a clever misdirection and a wickedly accurate assessment of the film’s tone. For his first English language film, Park chose a script with minimal dialogue because he wanted a story told primarily through images. A smart choice for a foreign director but then everything about Park Chan Wook is smart. Watch any of his films from his early “Joint Security Area (JSA)” to his Revenge Trilogy to his silly romantic comedy “I’m A Cyborg But That’s Okay” and you be left breathless by his meticulous sense of craft. Everything in carefully thought through, no shot is wasted, every edit has meaning, every tiny sound is there for a reason.
Seeing his Revenge Trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance”), “I’m A Cyborg,” and his new film “Stoker” all within a week allowed me to appreciated his films even more. His South Korean films have threads running through them, especially the notion of “sympathy.” But that sense of compassion is chilled for his first American film, amongst his characters as well as between the audience and the characters. This is not a bad thing in any way but it does feel like a shift in tone from his best known Korean work. (You do get a little of that tone in his chapter of the “Three Extremes” omnibus).
The film opens with a narration by young woman, India (Mia Wasikowska), who sets up the story we are about to see by suggesting that certain things are set and cannot be changed. What follows is a story about a family in which no one can escape their past or avoid their fate. India’s father has just died in a brutal accident and at the funeral a mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) she’s known nothing about shows up. He proves the catalyst for some unpleasant family secrets.
The less you know about this film the better. In fact avoid the trailer at all costs if you can because part of the seduction and pleasure of a Park film is not knowing where he’s taking you and the trailer gives away far too much.
Park has been criticized for emphasizing style over story. But for him, style is story. The chilly elegance of the visuals, the unsettling emphasis on sound, the intoxicating connections you make when images collide – all this creates a riveting and twisted tale of a girl’s coming of age.
Here’s a brief interview (through a translator) I had the pleasure of doing a few weeks back when he was on a promotional tour for the film in L.A.
How did “Stoker” come about? Were you looking to make your first American film?
PARK CHAN WOOK: It doesn’t have to be America but regardless of the origin, I’m always waiting for a good story to come my way. Of course I writes my own scripts but with some of the scripts coming my way I’m looking for something that’s just a good story. It just so happens that Americans were the only ones who would send scripts to me. Perhaps it is because the Americans are the most tolerant in terms of bringing directors overseas and allow them to direct their films.
What attracted you to Wentworh Miller’s script? Miller is actually best known as the lead actor from the Fox series “Prison Break.”
PARK CHAN WOOK: First of all it was a perfect script to make a quiet film, in other words not a film where there is a constant barrage of dialogue. In doing so each single word that is spoken onscreen becomes more important. Rather than conveying an idea through words with sparse use of dialogue I’m able to imbue more meaning to each moment and to do this not only through dialogue but through visual and sound elements such as sounds of the piano, sounds of footsteps, sounds of leaves falling. It may appear that I’m making similar films when you look at my work but with each film I’m looking to make always a very different films from the one I made before.
You have an amazing eye and ear for details. Can we talk about just one of these details, the high heels that India receives as a gift on her 18th birthday. She has them put on her by her uncle while she is standing a bit precariously at the top of the stairs.
PARK CHAN WOOK: That was a very, very important scene actually. It wasn’t something that came out spontaneously on set. It wasn’t a kind of happy accident but rather it was something that was meticulously planned, and was considered highly important among all of us making the film. We all referred to the scene as “The Queen’s Coronation” scene. That’s a testament to how important I treated the scene. And the reason why was that the moment she gets the heels on is like the moment when a person gets crowned and becomes monarch, so it is that, I’m comparing a girl’s journey of coming of age, becoming a grown up, to a person getting crowned and becoming queen. And in both cases it is a rise in positions and rising to such heights so quickly, so suddenly, causes dizziness, a very dizzying moment to become an adult from a girl, from ordinary citizen to queen. And of course in terms of music also I chose to express this dizzying, very disorientating emotion and that was exquisitely done through music as well, through Clint Mansell’s music. It is because of audiences like you who appreciate these little details, who pay attention to these little details, who savor these details, and this is the reason why I work even harder to try and provide more and more details for the audience such as yourself.
The editing in the film was wonderful as it moved us back and forth in time. How much of that cross cutting editing was built into the script and how much did you bring to it in post-production?
PARK CHAN WOOK: The idea of using crosscuts was already found in Wentworth’s script to a certain degree but it was my intention to emphasize and expand on this idea of using crosscuts and turn it into a characteristic of the film in terms of its structure. The reason why I made this conscious decision was because between the characters -- their past and present, their reality and their fantasy – all these links, I wanted to say are not separate but all merging together. I wanted to express the feeling of fate. So the crosscut structure was already in the Wentworth script in the process of revising the script and creating the storyboards for the entire film I was emphasizing that and through the editing process, my editor Nicolas DeToth really elevated this to the extreme.
Companion viewing: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Three Extremes,” “Merci Pour Le Chocolat”