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If you haven’t experienced one of director Park Chan-Wook’s films — and make no mistake, they’re works to be experienced — it’s time to get on the bandwagon. Often called the Quentin Tarantino of Korea, Chan-Wook is one of the most successful filmmakers in his country, but it’s his 2003 revenge thriller Oldboy propelled him onto the world stage.
Chan-Wook’s films are praised for their stylized, gorgeously shot, surreal images and often brutal subject matter. His Vengeance trilogy, comprised of 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and 2005’s Lady Vengeance, was followed by the quirky, quasi-romantic I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK and the vampire horror film Thirst. But this is the year Chan-Wook fully embraces American audiences: His highly anticipated English-language debut Stoker, starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, opens today, while Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy arrives this fall.
Spinoff Online sat down with Chan-Wook and his translator Wonjo Jeong while they were in New York City promoting Stoker, discussing the personal connection he has with the movie’s subject matter, its entrée into another trilogy, his unique approach to on-screen violence, and why it’s probably a good idea not to eat while watching his films.
I think you’ll appreciate my introduction to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. I saw it at my favorite Korean restaurant here in New York, and I ordered bibimbap. I received my food five minutes before the electrocution scene, and was stuffing my mouth as it happened. I still have weird feelings about rice.
Chan-Wook: [laughing] Oh, no!
It’s probably safe to say people shouldn’t eat while watching your films, yes?
Chan-Wook: [laughs] I wouldn’t do it myself, no.
We should just warn people now: no eating ice cream during Stoker.
Jeong: A friend of ours, he has secret private screenings with his friends, and what they have to do is — in turn — they have to pick a movie to watch with all their friends and they have to serve food.
Chan-Wook: And it has to do with the film!
Jeong: So of this group, it’s this guy’s turn to choose his film, and he chooses Oldboy. And he serves octopus!
That’s hilarious, and also nauseating. I almost guessed dumplings.
Chan-Wook: That would’ve worked, too!
I read in an interview after Thirst released that you wanted your next project to be “closer to everyday life.” Is that what drew you to Stoker?
Chan-Wook: Well, Thirst was a vampire film where people were flying around, so I probably meant to say that I wanted to make a film about real people. And having done Stoker, I suppose I got that half-right and half-wrong, because it does have to do with real people, although they are very isolated. But half-wrong in that they’re way too isolated, and the world they inhabit is very much a world unto itself. In that sense it’s not exactly everyday life. One of the reasons why it sparked my interest to do this film was because the makeup of the Stoker family is exactly the same as mine — my family is also comprised of the mother, the father, and a daughter exactly India’s age. From a very personal perspective I would say that this is very close to everyday life.
Thematically, it’s certainly similar to your other films. I see it as being an interesting counterpart to Oldboy, and even I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. Are you attempting to connect Stoker to any of your other films, perhaps as a trilogy?
Chan-Wook: In fact, I am thinking about doing a trilogy. So there’s Cyborg, there’s Stoker, and maybe another one.
Will it be a coming-of-age story featuring a female protagonist?
Chan-Wook: The common element will be that it’s a coming-of-age story of a young girl, yes. As much as Cyborg was, and this is.
For the third entry, will you be returning to Korean cinema or will it be English-language?
Chan-Wook: It probably will be a Korean one. And it probably won’t be the film that I do next. Some day!
So you’re hoping to tackle something completely different next?
Chan-Wook: In the broader sense, it will still very much be a genre film. I’ve never made a film that’s really outside of a genre. I’m not entirely sure what this next film is going to be, but speaking from my current state of mind I can say that I would like to get out of the house in the next film, and I would like to maybe do a film that is not a female protagonist. Although, as you’ve seen, there is a strong male character in Stoker, but, numerically, he’s outnumbered by female characters in the film. And even that character himself, Uncle Charlie, is quite a feminine character, in a way.
People talk a lot about the violence in your films. Your technique is very effective because most of the brutality is left to the imagination. I love the quote in Oldboy, “People shrivel up because they have an imagination. So, don’t imagine anything — you’ll become brave as hell.” Would you say that’s essentially the thesis for your approach to violence?
Chan-Wook: You’re absolutely right, and rightly pointed out. And that’s my modus operandi. In those rare moments when I feel it’s an absolute necessity, I feel I have to be straight up and show something. But most of the time, I like to pull away from the most terrifying moments that would make people shudder and leave it to the imagination, and let it do its job.
That’s almost always worse, in my opinion.
Chan-Wook: Cast your mind to that phone-booth sequence [in Stoker], where Uncle Charlie approaches Auntie G, and there is quite a tight shot, a close-up of Matthew’s face. And Matthew’s eyes seem so vacant and hollow, and it all owes to his brilliant, brilliant performance. But the way he’s so vacant there, it’s all the more violent and frightening than anything that’s explicitly violent. That’s how I see it. And in the moment Uncle Charlie undoes his belt, the audience may imagine — just looking at Auntie G and her reaction to seeing Uncle Charlie undoing his belt, she’s gasping. In seeing that, the audience may think that, “Oh. my God, is he going to rape this old woman? His own auntie? Is that what he’s doing?” That’s a wild imagination! I don’t claim responsibility for suggesting anything like that — it’s up to the audience, and the audience’s imagination evoking that.
Do you think that evil is something inherent, or something learned?
Chan-Wook: Evil is inherently inside each and every one of us, but in the form of a seed. Some people may have given it enough water and sunlight so that it might have come up from the ground and blossomed. In some people, it might not have been given enough nutrients, so it’s died altogether. In some people it might have blossomed to the point that not only is it one flower, but it creates an entire forest of evil inside. So if I compare it to Stoker, Uncle Charlie is sort of like the mother hen who pecks at this eggshell in which we find the baby chick that is India, and he’s helping her break out of her shell and become a fully fledged evil being. And to allude to this plant metaphor, Uncle Charlie not only waters and makes sure the plant is exposed to sunlight, he’s creating a whole greenhouse so she can become this fully realized evil being.
Well, opening and closing your film with a shot of blood on flowers certainly underscores that. I find it funny that you and Quentin Tarantino are so often compared to one another, and you both happened to use similar shots of blood spattering on plants in your most recent films — his was blood on cotton in Django Unchained.
Chan-Wook: [laughs] I haven’t seen Django quite yet!
Have you at least seen the shot I’m referring to? It’s in the trailers. When I saw your shot in Stoker I had an “Ohhh!” moment.
Chan-Wook: Yes! Me, too, I was like exactly like that.
Stoker opens today