Thirst, the story of a priest who becomes a vampire following a failed medical experiment, was one of our favourites at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So when we had the chance to sit down with director Park Chan-wook, we leapt at it. The South Korean director doesn’t speak English, and our Korean isn’t all that hot, so we chatted with the help of a translator who’s worked with him for years. Read on as we talk about Thirst, his Cannes experience, the state of Korean cinema and Hollywood producers’ tendency to remake anything they can get their hands on.
Park Chan-wook: Well, although I say that this has been a film 10 years in the making, I’ve not necessarily spent all those 10 years making the film of course! At the beginning I didn’t think of it as something very serious, I didn’t give it that much of a thought. One night I thought of the idea of a vampire film and wrote it down on a couple of bits of paper.
The idea that I had at the time was of a priest who was also a medical doctor. He started as a priest, who went on to study medicine, and so has a licence to practice as a medical practitioner. So as a priest/doctor, he volunteers to participate in this biological experiment in order to help save humanity, but despite his good intentions he becomes a vampire.
That was the idea written down back then, but everything in the middle was a big blank. Somehow he would fall in love with a woman, after she realises he’s a vampire and thinks he’s a monster, he ends up taking her life, but turns her into a vampire. So these two ideas were written down way back then, and afterwards I was constantly struggling with how to fill out the rest of the story, but I went on to other more pressing films that I had been working on in that time.
PC: It’s because of the differences between the characters. Here is one identity which, by its very existence, can be looked at as evil: A vampire, who takes other peoples’ blood in order to survive. On the other hand is this priest, which by the very meaning of the vocation is a vocation where you devote your life to others, living your life in service of others. Between these two identities, there is a huge ethical gap; a huge moral chasm. You have the moral height of being this noble priest, and the moral downfall to where you become a vampire, taking others blood. It’s such a height to make such a fall. And on the way down there are bigger scares and more thrills that you have to go to, that there is a bigger sense of vertigo that you feel.
PC: They are actually inseparable, the identity of a priest and the identity of a vampire, so I didn’t have any concern about which extreme to take this character at all, because they had to co-exist. He is a priest who is forced to live on as a vampire despite his faith. This conflict, the suffering, and the pain that he goes through; this struggle is the main point of this film so the two need to go hand in hand.
Let’s say I’m shooting a sequence about Beethoven, on the first performance of his ninth symphony, and when the concert finishes, and there is a roar of applause from the audience, but he can’t hear and he’s facing away from the audience, so one of the orchestra members has to turn him around to face the audience and take his bow. If I was to shoot this sequence, would you ask whether this was about the man with a hearing problem, or about a great composer? These two matters go hand in hand. If it hadn’t been about the man having a hearing disability, would we even shoot the sequence?
Still from Thirst.
PC: Complexity, instability, and somebody who can cover all the different stages that this character has to go through, from almost child-like innocence to a downtrodden housewife who is burdened with all these chores and having to deal with everyday life situations. In this film, it almost feels as if her clock is running in reverse. She starts off as a downtrodden housewife, and then she turns into a young woman in love, and then when she becomes a vampire, there is this dialogue saying, “Happy birthday,” and this is where she is turned into almost a child, a baby.
So I needed somebody who could handle all the performances for all these different states of the character, and could deal with all these different ages that this character goes through, so she needed the right appearance for that as well as the acting chops required.
Oh, and lastly, sex appeal.
PC: Yes. Even within five minutes of first seeing her, she exuded all those qualities that I needed, and I saw just how energetic she was.
PC: Yes, I feel there are constants throughout by body of work. Dealing with absurdity and dealing with surrealistic expressions.
Continue on to page two as the director expands on his surrealism, updates on Korean cinema and discusses Hollywood remakes.
Park Chan-wook: Not necessarily. Of course there are elements in my approach to surrealism, and perhaps the visual aspect of it is the most important, but I think it’s the situation itself which provides a surreal element to my film.
PC: In this film, the biggest element is the moral downfall of the central character and the suffering that he goes through. So compared with other vampire works, it probably lacks the romanticism. In order to bring the moral aspects of the story to the fore, you need to remain very cold and approach it in a very realistic way, and that’s what sets it apart from other vampire films. Even if it’s not a vampire film, in a contemporary film, if the film is emphasising the moral aspects of the story, you may find that it’s old-fashioned. But somehow the moral emphasis and aspects make my films feel fresher.
PC: Nosferatu is my favourite vampire film out of all the classic films and even the modern ones too, with Herzog‘s remake. I’ve always had an interest in vampire films, not just Nosferatu, but there are many others that I have enjoyed; Abel Ferrara, Coppola, Neil Jordan.
PC: It’s a festival which can cause headaches, and which can be very picky and quite cumbersome, but after a week’s schedule, going through all this pain, its also a festival where in that 10 minutes after your screening, it can make you forget about everything that you had been going through before, just with the reaction of the audience after your screening, where they express their supreme respect for the filmmaker.
Still from Thirst.
PC: I do, but overall it’s not fundamentally that different. Even in Korea itself, depending on which screen it was shown at, which theatre you go to, which screen time you choose, there are different people in the audiences and so the reaction is always different. So can you say that there is a range of difference found in domestic audiences when compared with the international audience? It’s hard to say.
PC: Yes there is. Korean films have been introduced to the Western and overseas audiences constantly in the past few years, so I find that they are increasing in popularity more and more. Whereas, up ’til now, Western audiences had found Korean films through DVD releases or festivals or even illegal internet downloads, now I think the time is right for the audiences to see these Korean films through commercial distribution at a cinema where the audience could see any film.
PC: I don’t think that we’ve reached a level where we can say that, but certainly there are incremental changes; for instance, with Thirst, Universal came on board as an investor. But not just with this film, there are more and more remake rights being sold and exported into other territories outside of Korea. It’s not so much that you can say that there is an exponential growth of the money coming in.
PC: When it comes to remaking my own films in the English language, I can only imagine that it is a very boring process, I wouldn’t ever dream of it. But much in the way that I have my radar on for a good script in Korea, if there is a good script coming my way from the US, of course I would go shoot a film there. Not just the US, but anywhere in the world.
PC: There isn’t a next film confirmed at the moment unfortunately. At the moment, all I can think about is taking some rest. If I was to start on the next film, I’d hope to do something closer to everyday life.
Thirst is out in the US on Friday. It arrives in UK cinemas on 16th October.