Ian Buruma, 9 April 2006
Park Chanwook does not look like a violent man. When he isn’t wearing glasses, his soft, round face resembles that of a gentle Tang dynasty Buddha. He speaks quietly and smiles a lot, more like a hip college professor than the director of an ultraviolent revenge trilogy. Pinned on the walls of his office in Seoul, among the movie posters and postcards, are photographs of his wife and 12-year-old daughter. His wife, whom he met at a university film club in the 1980’s, reads all his scripts and is his most trusted adviser. Their daughter has seen most of his films. A nice, quiet, reflective family man, then, this 42-year-old director who also happens to be a master of imagery at times so brutal that it is almost unbearable to watch.
Sitting in his office not long ago, we talked about violence, or more specifically about Park’s terror of violence. “In my films, I focus on pain and fear,” he said. “The fear just before an act of violence and the pain after. This applies to the perpetrators as well as the victims.” To illustrate his point, Park described a scene from his last film, “Lady Vengeance,” in which the father of a kidnapped and murdered child finally has the kidnapper at his mercy, tied to a chair in an abandoned schoolhouse. The father is there with his family and relatives of the child murderer’s other young victims. They all patiently wait their turns to wreak a terrible revenge on the defenseless killer.
“The father,” Park continued, “has picked up his ax. His daughter tries to restrain him. The audience expects her to say something like, ‘No, don’t do it!’ Instead, she asks him to leave the victim alive, so the rest of the family can also have a go at him. The audience laughs. The next shot shows the father with his ax dripping blood, terrified of what he has just done. The audience can’t be cynical anymore and regrets having laughed at the preparation for such a brutal act.”
Park didn’t smile while he told me this. Violence, for him, is a serious business. He may have a disturbing way of manipulating the viewers’ emotions, but as he explained to me, the focus of his work is not “the beauty or humor of violence.” As far as his films are concerned, he thinks of himself “as an ethical man.” To Park, the psychology of the perpetrator is as important as that of the victim. His main characters are often a bit of both.
Their suffering might easily be written off as a black farce were the gory details not piled up with such relentless, and in the end often numbing, force. The second film of his trilogy, “Oldboy” (2003), follows a man who is suddenly released after 15 years of solitary confinement. We see him stuffing a live octopus down his throat, battling a gang of armed thugs in a narrow corridor, cutting off his own tongue with a pair of scissors and slithering across a bloody floor in a final deadly encounter with the man who had him locked up. Ah, yes, and along the way, he commits incest with his daughter.
Park’s daughter was allowed to see “Lady Vengeance” but not “Oldboy,” because of the incest. A faint, slightly embarrassed smile illuminated Park’s face. “If it had been a mother and son,” he said, “I might have felt better about it, but since it is about a father and daughter, I would have felt awkward.”
Park’s films are usually classed as “Asian Extreme,” something of a catchall term for a new crop of hyperviolent films made in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand that have garnered a cult following not just in Asia but also in Europe and the United States. The films take many of the elements of exploitation flicks and twist them — the violence is stylized and inventive, the plots often tinged with political attitudes. Both Takashi Miike’s postapocalyptic yakuza epic, “Dead or Alive,” and Fruit Chan’s macabre parable of the beauty industry, “Dumplings,” use extreme situations to underscore social ills. The two filmmakers were included along with Park in an anthology of the genre, “Three. . .Extremes,” released in the United States last year. Park has become the most modish figure in the world of Asian Extreme. Art houses and college festivals have been quick to screen installments of his revenge trilogy, his films win prizes at festivals and he was rated on the taste-making Web site aintitcool.com as the No. 1 filmmaker of 2002 and 2003. But he has also received more mainstream acceptance. In 2004, he won the Grand Prix at Cannes for “Oldboy.” Universal bought the rights to remake it and tapped Justin Lin, a 33-year-old Taiwan-born American director, with one hit behind him, to direct it.
Park is also enormously popular in Korea. In 2003, more than three million Koreans went to see “Oldboy.” Three years earlier, his feature film, “Joint Security Area” — a tale of two South Korean border guards who sneak across the cease-fire line to fraternize with their counterparts in North Korea — was one of the highest-grossing films in South Korean history. (“Joint Security Area” is also scheduled to be remade for an American audience, by David Franzoni, a writer and producer of “Gladiator,” with the story reimagined on the United States-Mexico border.)
In large part, Park’s success is a product of a newly energized Korean cinema, part of the so-called Korean Wave, which first swept Asia and then Europe and the United States. The end of Korea’s military dictatorship in the late 1980’s meant the end of rigid censorship, and the country’s film industry, once tightly controlled, began to attract a much wider audience. (Korea’s minister of culture was until recently Lee Chang-dong, whose own film “Oasis” won an award at Venice in 2002.) Many of the new Korean films are explicitly violent — Kang Je-gyu’s terrorist-thriller hit “Shiri”; Kim Ki-duk’s hard-boiled noirs; “A Tale of Two Sisters,” Kim Jee-woon’s horror smash — but not all. Some deal with sex, at times of a rather unusual kind, like the protracted love scene between septuagenarians in “Too Young to Die,” which initially prompted the Korea Media Rating Board to declare the film unfit for public viewing. Some are subtle human dramas set in the past. There are comic films, too, and then there are the television tear-jerkers, like “Winter Sonata,” which reduced millions of Japanese, as well as Koreans, to weekly floods of tears.
South Korea offers the kind of state support that many filmmakers would envy. Since 1966, Korean theaters have been required to show Korean films a certain number of days a year. The figure has been set at 146 days since 1984. (The number was halved during negotiations last month for a U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement, which prompted widespread protests from the local film industry.) The largest distributor of Korean films, CJ Entertainment, is also the owner of one-third of the country’s multiplexes, and its parent company helps to finance the productions of studios like Park’s, Moho Film. But the ease of financing and distribution do not account entirely for the success of local films, which often outperform Hollywood blockbusters, a sign, perhaps, of Korea’s new mood of cocky nationalism. “We are feeling confident,” Park said, “perhaps a bit too confident.”
There appear to be almost no limits on what can be shown in Korean films. I asked Park whether there were any taboos left in cinema at all. He thought for a while and shook his head. The only thing, he said, was a category called “outside ratings.” If the sex and violence are too extreme, then a movie can be shown only in restricted cinemas. I asked him whether any films were ever criticized for their political content anymore.
Well, Park said, “when ‘Joint Security Area’ was released, the public was quite shocked, because the North Koreans were portrayed as human beings and not monsters, but this actually helped the film commercially.” But of course “you can’t praise North Korean politics. That would be very scandalous.” Was that the only thing? Yes, Park replied, that was it. Otherwise, there was no longer any censorship. I was surprised, perhaps still haunted by memories of recent authoritarianism, and pressed him again. He reconsidered, shutting his eyes in thought. Well, he said, “there is one thing that can never be said in Korea. You could never say that the Japanese occupation of Korea had been beneficial. That would create even more hostility than a movie praising North Korea. It would be like telling Jews that the Holocaust didn’t exist.”
From a man who revels in moral ambiguities, this was a surprising statement. The Japanese occupation lasted from 1910 until the end of World War II, and it was often brutal, but it was no Holocaust. Much of the Korean elite collaborated, as they later would with postwar dictatorships, because the occupation brought benefits too: railroads, schools, industry, efficient administration. Park admitted that the paradoxes of collaboration could be interesting and said that there were books and novels that dealt with such cases but that they couldn’t yet be touched in the movies. It is a curious notion: you can show the most terrible violence in Korean films, even children being tortured, but the cherished myths of nationalist history have to be left untouched.
Children, especially little girls, play a big role in Park’s imagination. They often die by drowning, torture or other violent means. In the short film “Cut,” Park’s contribution to “Three . . . Extremes,” he tells the story of a successful, well-liked movie director who comes home one night to find his wife tied to her grand piano by an intruder, an extra on one of the director’s films. The extra threatens to chop off the wife’s fingers one by one (she’s a pianist) if the director doesn’t agree to kill a kidnapped child, huddling in terror on the couch.
It may be that there is no contradiction between Park the quiet, loving family man and Park the master of cruelty. His films can be read as the nightmares of a doting father. This comes out most clearly in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), the first film in his revenge trilogy and perhaps his darkest. A deaf-mute kidnaps the small child of his former boss, a ruthless businessman who once fired him. But that is not the reason for the kidnapping. The deaf-mute man needs to raise money for his dying sister, who needs a kidney transplant. His girlfriend, a member of a vaguely left-wing terrorist group, argues that the kidnapping will actually be a blessing to the father and child, for after the ransom is paid, they will be so happy to be together again. But when the sister finds out what he has done, she kills herself. And before the child can be returned, she accidentally drowns in a river, and the enraged father slices the kidnapper’s Achilles’ tendons and lets him bleed to death. Some of that scene is filmed underwater, making the killing more sinister, the water turning a dark crimson.
“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” was, for Park, a rare commercial failure. I asked him why. “In the first half of the film,” he explained, “the audience invests a lot of emotion on the deaf-and-dumb kidnapper. Then, in the second half, things are reversed. The audience now has to identify with the father. I find the structure of this movie interesting, because it forces the audience to identify with the perpetrator as well as the victim. And the audience doesn’t necessarily like doing this.”
When I first met Park in New York, after the U.S. premiere of “Lady Vengeance” at the New York Film Festival last fall (it will be released in U.S. theaters later this month), he said that only a psychiatrist could explain his preoccupation with horror and violence. In fact, however, his background offers some clues. Park’s first ambition was to be not a filmmaker but an art critic. As a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul, he was mainly interested in aesthetics. Since this was barely taught at his university, he devoted himself to photography and watching films. In an interview, Park once described what happened next: “Then one day, I saw Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo.’ During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head, ‘If I don’t at least try to become a movie director, I will seriously regret it when I’m lying in my deathbed!’ After that, akin to James Stewart when he was blindly chasing after some mysterious woman, I searched aimlessly for some kind of irrational beauty.” Park’s films, even, or perhaps especially, in the most violent scenes, have a haunting beauty whose aesthetic owes something to Hitchcock, to be sure. One scene in “Oldboy,” of the hero chasing his younger self up a stairway, rather like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,” is a direct homage to the master of suspense. But Park has a visual language all his own too: sequences that even in their violence are often dreamlike (a half-man, half-dog pulled through the snow by the female lead in “Lady Vengeance” or the protagonist of “Oldboy” mutely embracing his daughter in a snowy wood); richly textured interiors and images built around a single color, to eerie, symbolic effect.
I asked Park what kinds of films he grew up watching. He said that as a child he’d had little opportunity to go to the cinema. Born in 1963, Park was raised in the last grim decades of the military dictatorship, when Seoul was still under curfew. Japanese films were not allowed to be shown in Korea, because the wounds of colonial rule were still raw. Park’s movie education came from Hollywood classics on television. “If I had grown up seeing films by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi or Ozu,” he said, “I might be a different kind of person.” Instead, he watched “Shane,” “High Noon,” “The Man From Laramie” and his favorite film, “Apache,” with Burt Lancaster as the last Apache warrior. At first, he said, “seeing Lancaster play an Indian was ridiculous, but then the idea of one man taking on the white race made me cry.” The image of Lancaster, “half-naked like Tarzan, rolling about in the desert, being cut and bruised by rocks and stones, is still vivid in my mind. I can still feel it.”
Images of physical suffering are clearly important to Park. They move him. And the images that stick in his memory appear to be mostly from Western movies. Such cross-cultural pollination is not a new phenomenon. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies were an inspiration to many Western directors. John Sturges’s “Magnificent Seven,” starring Steve McQueen, was a remake of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and “A Fistful of Dollars,” directed by Sergio Leone, the great Italian maestro of the spaghetti western, was a version of Yojimbo. Less well known is Kurosawa’s own debt to Hollywood: his samurai films were inspired by John Ford’s westerns. Park is openly in awe of certain Western filmmakers. When he was awarded the Grand Prix for “Oldboy” (the jury was headed by Quentin Tarantino) at Cannes, he told the audience: “I met Roman Polanski at a party, and we had our photograph taken together. That was already such an honor that I really didn’t expect to win a prize.”
And yet, despite sharing some of Polanski’s morbid obsessions, or Tarantino’s Hollywood flash, Park’s films seem to belong to a different tradition, one more rooted in East Asia — manga (Japanese comics), anime (the Japanese form of animation that, in its adult guise, can take on a cyberpunk feel) and kung fu films, but also the computer games spread around the world from Tokyo and Seoul, are part of this tradition. Park says that young Koreans “no longer have a problem with Japanese popular culture.” “Oldboy” was in fact based on a Japanese manga, by Tsuchiya Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki. In manga, as in the traditional Japanese woodblock print that could be considered its forerunner, everything, including the sex and violence, is wildly exaggerated. And scenes are cut, not seamlessly as in a Hollywood movie, but more, as Park once put it, “like a knife cutting through tofu.” “Oldboy,” Park’s most mangalike film, is a kind of visual circus full of violent excess, at once beautiful and painful to watch.
This taste for the grotesque and the absurd can also be found in the stylized Chinese, Korean and Japanese theater, which depend on deliberately exaggerated effects and theatrical gestures. Kabuki, Chinese opera and the Korean masqued dance theater called Talchum are never meant to be realistic. Where the Japanese excelled in stylized violence — murder, ritual suicides, battle scenes — Koreans have a long tradition of humorous social satire. Like anime, Korean and Japanese computer games are part of this stylized theatrical tradition and appear to have influenced Park’s work as much as his early viewings of Hitchcock. Bending reality through digital effects, which allows the camera to jump around and move through space at dizzying speeds or to cut out an entire side of a building to follow the hero in a fight sequence in one continuous take, a technique common to side-scrolling video games, are just some of the things that make Park’s films resemble computer games.
“Funny you should say that,” Park responded when I brought up the subject of computer games. “I can see why my films remind people of computer games, but I’ve never played one. Actually, I was approached by a Japanese designer of a PlayStation game called Metal Gear Solid. When I met him, I found that there was nothing really to talk about. But I was told that I was idolized in the world of computer games.”
There is another explanation for Park’s violent preoccupations, one based less on aesthetics than on political circumstances. He was at college in the mid-80’s, the height of the student demonstrations against the military regime. Confrontations with the riot police often had an oddly ritualistic character: the screaming students charging like a rebel army, the clouds of tear gas and the inevitable retreat. The worst brutalities didn’t actually happen in the streets, in front of the world’s television cameras, but in army barracks and police jails, where students were sometimes beaten to death.
Park, always the bookish movie buff, stayed away from the demonstrations. He was too afraid. This left him with feelings of guilt and fear that he was never able to shake off. “Young people set fire to themselves,” he recalled. “Others were taken away to be tortured. Some fell off buildings. The fear of violence made a big impression on me.” Since the 80’s, he said, “young people have fallen into two distinct groups. Those who participated actively are proud of their sacrifices. They changed society, but they also feel deprived, because they were unable to enjoy their youth. Then there are the others, who feel guilty for not having taken part. We enjoy our freedoms without having done anything to earn them. One of the worst legacies of military dictatorship is that it polarized a whole generation.”
Guilt, as well as fear, is one of the themes that run through all of Park’s movies. The bloodiest acts are carried out by people whose rage is fueled by guilt — for kidnapping a child, an act committed by the protagonists in both “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance,” or cheating on a wife, like the movie director in “Cut.” Often, the brutality of his characters is fueled by class resentment — the fury of poor, marginalized people against the newly rich. Student politics of the 80’s are also reflected in such themes as the black market for human organs, brutal prison conditions, the sexual exploitation of women and the summary dismissal of factory workers. Perhaps Park, with all his talent for manipulation, is really a moralist, working out his feelings of rage, fear and guilt in scenes of cinematic horror. By doing so, he has hit a nerve in a country whose history of colonial rule, civil war and military dictatorship has burdened many people with these emotions.
I met Park again on a wintry afternoon in a fashionable European-style restaurant in Kangnam-gu, a newly developed area of Seoul that matches the mood of his films: it is a slickly modern district of Internet cafes, wine bars, design companies and high-end boutiques. Park was dressed casually in black, as usual, but was in a more jovial mood than I’d seen him in before. We were now on his home turf. Sitting next to him was the lead actor of “Oldboy,” an affable baby-faced man named Choi Min-sik. A big star in South Korea, Choi first made his reputation as a theater actor and became famous for a variety of movie roles: a 19th-century painter, a North Korean agent, a trumpet-playing music teacher and a gangster. He has made two films with Park, playing the vengeful victim in “Oldboy” and the child-killer in “Lady Vengeance.” For someone who could be a pampered movie star, he has submitted to some remarkably grueling scenes, not just gobbling up live octopuses, but standing in icy rivers, crawling in pools of blood and being pummeled and beaten and slashed by more than a dozen men in single long takes. This last, a scene in “Oldboy,” was the hardest, Choi said. Park giggled: “Every time I called ‘cut,’ Choi would look up at me with his sad puppy eyes, and I had to tell him to carry on.” I asked Choi whether he thought there was a sadist lurking in the heart of every film director. “In his case,” Choi said, “absolutely.” Park giggled again. “Only with male actors.”
The two men seemed to have an extraordinary rapport. Choi collaborated closely with Park on the script for “Oldboy.” “We talked throughout the process of making the script,” Choi said. “This was not a case of a famous actor wanting to get his way. When you work together on a script, you have to have enormous respect and trust for each other.” Park later explained to me that he typically works on scripts by getting a lot of input from others. He has two computers on his desk, one for himself and one for his collaborators, who take part in the writing. These can be actors or other members of his staff. Ideas are thrown back and forth, lines added or deleted, narratives revised, until finally the result passes the eyes of Park’s wife. The process can be remarkably fast. “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” Park told me, was written in 20 hours of nonstop work.
I wondered what, precisely, Choi’s input on “Oldboy” had been. I knew that Choi had played Hamlet on the stage. In Asia, “Hamlet” is usually interpreted as a revenge play. I asked him whether this was because Korean theater was often about revenge. He replied that the “Hamlet” production he starred in interpreted the play that way, but both he and Park quickly assured me that this had nothing to do with Korean tradition. Japanese theater is often about revenge, but Korean culture, in Park’s words, is “more about forgiving — forgiving too easily, in fact.”
Despite this rather sweeping statement, Park, quite rightly, is wary of being pinned down to generalities about culture or tradition. I had mentioned the word han to him in New York, the word that Koreans often use to define their national character. Han, like most clichés claiming to explain national character, is not easy to translate. It means something like “long-smoldering resentment about past wrongs.” I thought it might shed some light on Park’s obsession with revenge. But Park was quick to dismiss it: “We don’t like to use that kind of language anymore,” he said. It reminded him of traditional society, when women were said to carry lifelong grudges because they couldn’t have children.
Still, there are elements in Park’s films that seem particular to Korean and Japanese culture. One is the almost casual appearance of ghosts. In Park’s trilogy, murdered children haunt the guilty consciences of the living. The drowned daughter in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” for example, appears in her father’s apartment days after drowning, with water dripping from her body. (Water, perhaps not incidentally, often has sinister connotations in East Asia; bad spirits frequently emerge from swamps and lakes.) I asked Choi whether Korean ghosts were usually benign or vengeful. He said that traditionally they were both. He mentioned a mythical Korean character in the shape of a 100-year-old fox who often disguises herself as a woman. The fox is envious of humans and capable of doing them harm. But she also wants to make peace with them. “Western ghosts,” Choi said, “are evil, but Korean ghosts are about making peace. That is part of our Korean psyche.”
“Yes,” Park said with a straight face, “and I’m thoroughly sick of that. That’s why I make movies about revenge, as a reaction.” Choi smiled and nudged Park in the ribs, as if his director were a naughty child. But the fox story was interesting. I thought of the characters in Park’s movies, the good father who murders the kidnapper of his daughter, the angelic woman who exacts her hideous revenge against a child-killer in “Lady Vengeance,” the “old boy” who is tormented by his own efforts to take revenge against a tormentor. Like the fox-woman, they are all soaked in moral ambiguity.
One thing conspicuously lacking in Park’s fearful world of murder and revenge is sexual passion. There are sex scenes in his movies, to be sure: incest in “Oldboy”; men masturbating to the sound of a moaning woman in the apartment next door in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”; lesbian prison scenes in “Lady Vengeance.” But none of these scenes are joyful or even erotic. Passion, in Park’s films, is between fathers and daughters, or between siblings. With one possible exception: “Joint Security Area.”
There is undoubtedly passion in it — between the men. As the two South Korean border guards become increasingly comfortable slipping across the cease-fire line to visit their North Korean counterparts, they drink and sing, exchange presents and horse around like little kids. When they are discovered by a North Korean officer, two North Koreans are killed in the shootout that ensues. One of the South Koreans manages to get back to the South Korean side safely. The other is wounded. Rather than implicate his buddies, on both sides of the border, one of the men ends up committing suicide.
“Joint Security Area” is a melodrama that perfectly expresses the modishly left-wing nationalism that grips many young South Koreans today: North Koreans are depicted as mostly nice, gentle people; much of the brutality is in the South; and the partition of Korea is the work of foreigners. What is remarkable about this film is not the passionate male bonding but the sentimentality. Even Park loses his hard-boiled airs when it comes to national sentiment.
Violence, of course, can be a form of passion, and sometimes perhaps the only form of human communication. Park’s films describe a world without much physical contact, a society in which the traditional comforts, and constrictions, of family relations, or any collective social life, have disappeared; in which individuals are locked in their private spaces, communicating through the Internet or other mechanical devices. South Korea is one of the most wired societies in the world. Earlier, in Park’s office, I asked him if violence, even imaginary violence, was perhaps an exaggerated response to this virtual new world, an extreme form of human contact.
Park didn’t answer my question immediately, but took his time, screwing up his eyes, working up a coherent answer, and then went off on a political riff on the nature of modern society. “Because of capitalism,” he said, “relationships between people and their communities — family, or clan, or region — have largely broken down, especially in Asia.” He had told me earlier that compared with filmmakers in the West, Koreans were “more sensitive about the tensions between individuals and society.” The characters in his films, he said, were “bound to feel lonely and isolated from the world.” That is why he often shows them communicating by e-mail or mobile phones, instead of actually seeing one another. “This puts a distance between people, leading to misunderstandings, which is interesting.”
The same could be said of any modern society, but then Park told me a story that showed how much tradition can matter, even in cyberspace: “A young woman, working in our office, fell in love with a man through the Internet. The young man was so taken with her that he not only scrutinized her blog but followed all the links in her blog as well. He traced her family relationships, but also her entire private history, including her boyfriends going back to high-school days. Not only their names, but even their digital pictures came up through the links. In the end, he knew everything about her, without having to hire a detective.”
Park continued: “You might find this invasion of privacy a bit scary, but young Koreans like it. It is, in a way, a revival of village life, a revival of community, where everyone knows everything about everyone else.” But it is a peculiar community, where human intimacy takes place without physical contact. I returned to my question about violence. “Yes,” Park said, “violence is a form of communication, whether good or bad — that isn’t the issue. It is symbolic of a kind of human communication.”
Park’s films, then, reflect the virtual nature of our contemporary world, as well as the Korean past, soaked in blood and guilt and oppression. Park has responded to harsh political issues in the way East Asian writers, painters and playwrights have so often done before, by expressing their violent emotions in fantasy, by stylizing cruelty and exorcising fears by acting them out in a world of irrational beauty. Perhaps it is this, more than anything, that has made Korean, Chinese and Japanese directors into such masters of the absurd. Park’s next film will feature a combat cyborg who falls in love with a thief of human souls — in a mental hospital. Things cannot get much stranger than that.