Saturday, July 25, 2009

THIRST (BAK-JWI, 2009)—Q&A With Park Chan-wook

The Bay Area premiere of Park Chan-wook's Thirst was previewed at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinemas to a capacity audience composed of the combined memberships of the San Francisco Film Society and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and made possible by Focus Features. CAAM's Festival Director Chi-hui Yang moderated the Q&A between director Park and his capacity crowd, with translative assistance from Moho Film's Project Development Manager Wonjo Jeeng. This transcript is not for the spoiler-wary.

As synopsized at Cannes: "Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a beloved and admired priest in a small town, who devotedly serves at a local hospital. He goes to Africa to volunteer as a test subject in an experiment to find a vaccine to the new deadly infectious disease caused by Emmanuel Virus (E.V.). During the experiment, he is infected by the E.V. and dies. But transfusion of some unidentified blood miraculously brings him back to life, and unbeknownst to him, it has also turned him into a vampire. After his return home, news of Sang-hyun's recovery from E.V. spreads and people start believing he has the gift of healing and flock to receive his prayers. From those who come to him, Sang-hyun meets a childhood friend named Kang-woo (Ha-kyun Shin) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Sang-hyun is immediately drawn to Tae-ju. Tae-ju gets attracted to Sang-hyun, who now realizes he has turned into a vampire, and they begin a secret love affair. Sang-hyun asks Tae-ju to run away with him but she turns him down. Instead, she tries to involve Sang-hyun in a plot to kill Kang-woo."

Synopses are rarely as wry as Maggie Lee's for The Hollywood Reporter: "Korean auteur extraordinaire Park Chan-wook's Thirst is a torrid expression of predatory instinct and insatiable, all-consuming love, embodied through its protagonist's difficulty in holding his day job as a priest-cum-miracle-healer, and his night shift as an accidental vampire and fornicating murderer." Okay! There you have it.

Initiating the questioning, Chi-hui Yang noted that Park Chan-wook had been a film critic before he began making films, accounting for his keen sense of storytelling and genre. Park's play with genres—the political thriller, the revenge film, the fairy tale, the vampire film—typify his films but likewise defy and upend audience expectations by transcending genre. Chi-hui asked director Park how he liked to play with genre in his films?

Park responded that, for him, genre is a kind of chain and a bit of a headache. As a commercial film director who's granted a considerable amount of money to make his films, genre has become a fence delimiting his filmmaking. He can't seem to escape it. To remain within the limitations (i.e., fences) of genre is incredibly boring. But the real problem is the fact that he doesn't really hate genre and the specific genres that he plays around with are the thriller, horror or film noir. A genre he would like to tackle in the future would be science fiction. The thing is, however, that—despite their limitations—he loves these genres, even though over a long period of time these genres have become related with old conventions, which he sometimes embraces; other times destroys; sometimes only partially changes. That's how he plays games with these clichés. As Tae-ju says to Sang-hyun in Thirst, she considers him a "germ" that has infected their happy family, creating havoc. Much in the same way, Park considers himself a "germ" who has infected the realm of genre conventions.

Scott Macaulay addresses this in his career overview for Film In Focus. Macaulay writes: "The genre-savvy cinema of Park Chan-wook is one that delivers true movie-movie kicks, but it's also one that embeds its shocks within the ethical dilemmas posed by the world around us."

Chi-hui next asked Park how he thought about his audiences when creating his films? Of course, like many other artists and filmmakers, what Park strives for in his films is to try and pose a question, but he has no illusions that his questions are original and haven't been posed by many filmmakers and artists before him. Questions like: where is the end of revenge? What are the consequences—or rewards if you like—of revenge? Why are we born into certain conditions? Where do our identities come from? These questions have been repeatedly posed by a great number of artists; but, what's important is—not how the question is posed—but how a director makes the question relevant to the audience? Or how he can make the audience acutely aware of the questions? To that end, Park designs many of the visual and sound elements in his films; he develops the narrative structure so that it flows; and envisions how the actors will perform. He attempts to control each and every required element in hundreds of shots so as to build and pose this question.

These questions posed by film directors are usually conceptual and can be expressed in sentences; however, a film should not be doing that. A film in all cases should try to convey and present these questions in the most sensual way possible. In Park's opinion, that is the point of filmmaking. That's why a filmmaker uses all kinds of mediums—music, sound, imagery—to pose the question. Furthermore, when Park makes a film, he tries not to just use aural or visual senses; but, also a film that you can touch, or almost smell. Although not always successful, he strives for that level of sensory filmmaking.

At the
Cannes press conference, Park answered similarly: "My top priority was to make a film that would appeal to our five senses. I was careful to think about how the film would feel physically. I wanted Thirst to be seen, heard, and felt, either by smell or touch. In each shot, I strove to keep the audience's five senses constantly tingling."

By example, when Sang-hyun goes to Africa there's a scene where he's playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on his recorder. He starts out with Bach's beautiful cantata melody but it turns into the sound of blood gushing out of every hole of the recorder. To transition this beautiful Bach melody into the sound of blood spurting out of all these holes, Park isn't just seeking horrific effect. The scene is a metaphor for the main character Sang-hyun who is noble and holy and has risked his own life to save humanity. He contracts the virus that initiates the disease in his body. At the same time, this scene foretells what's to come in the rest of the film and how Sang-hyun will experience a moral downfall and ends up as a creature, or being, that has to commit horrific wrongdoings in order to survive.

One more example would be the observing eyes of Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim). When Sang-hyun kills Tae-ju and is sucking on her blood, his eyes meet those of Lady Ra's and it becomes a shocking moment. But why should it be so? Lady Ra is a paralyzed person whose gaze taunts (haunts?) Sang-hyun. For an audience member, a close-up on Lady Ra's eyes is not just a close-up; rather, it feels like needles are coming out of her piercing eyes. In a sense, Park is trying to create a physical shock through a sensory experience. Also at film's end when the sun is coming up, Park has many shots of the sun coming up but it's not just about the sun rising; it's also about creating the feeling of hundreds of thousands of needles coming out from the sun.

Asked why his scenes are often contained in small, nearly claustrophobic spaces, Park explained that he is trying to make the questions he's throwing at the audience as clear as possible. Confined spaces serve as a device to help clarify his questions. In limited or confined spaces, there are only a limited number of variables that a director can come up with. How characters interact with each other within confined spaces reveals the true nature of the question.

At the Cannes press conference, Park answered this question alternately: "The movie is not in a single room, but a single house. In Thirst, incarceration is psychological rather than physical. I like the motif of incarceration. That's because these places are miniaturized universes. These are the spaces where existential circumstances that people face are more clearly revealed. Also, it saves on the budget to shoot on sets like these."

At film's end, however, he has the characters come out of the confined spaces into a wide open space at the edge of the ocean. There's a sense of liberation coming out of the claustrophobic environment. Energy applies to vast spaces as well. There are conditions of course. These wide environments need to not have much else going on; they should be spatially simple, spare and clear. Similarly to his confined spaces, these vast open spaces simplify and purify the questions he's trying to ask. By doing this, Park maximizes the effect of his film's ending. The effect he's aiming for is to try to create a simple background, much like a film screen itself with little projected upon it. By minimizing what you see in the background, Park woos the audience to consider their own thoughts and to come to their own conclusions after watching the film. Would his characters be happy after going through all this? What will become of them? Is this a happy ending? In order to give the audience space to think about and answer these questions, a clear space is required so they can focus on these questions.

As for why he made his protagonist a Catholic priest, Park offered that his idea was centered around a truly noble character who—regardless of his good wishes or intentions and (if you believe in God) due to God's will or (if you don't) due to some unforeseen forces—becomes a being who is farthest from what is noble. He experiences a great downfall. In telling this story, he thought, "What if the main character was a Catholic priest? Catholic priests always pray for others and live to serve others." This character—now a priest—was to do some truly good deed which backfires and makes him a vampire, an evil being just by the fact that he lives on the blood of humans. This transition—or, more accurately, downfall—from a high position of nobility to the lowest point of immorality is the key idea of the story. Priests are a group of people who—by vocation—have to drink the wine of transubstantiation each time they conduct mass and the wine represents Christ's blood, of course. Drinking the wine, they contemplate the mystery of Christ's blood that was shed to save and redeem humanity. But having become a vampire has inverted the sacrament. The blood Sang-hyun drinks is not to save or redeem mankind; but, to insure his own survival. He's not ritually drinking wine but literally drinking human blood. Park didn't intend to ridicule or mock Catholicism in any way. Vampirism and Catholicism were simply devices to tell the story of this noble character's downfall.

Asked a similar question at the Cannes press conference, Park Chan-wook replied: "When I made the hero a priest, my idea was not to criticize the calling or the religion, both of which I respect. I was just looking for the purest and most humanistic job a person in our society could have, and the priesthood seemed obvious to me. To have a character who practices charity and does good deeds in daily life, and who needs to drink blood to stay alive … I was curious about the dilemmas that could create, and what the moral of the story could be…. When I was mulling over this project ten years ago, I wanted to avoid all the usual vampire flick clichés, like the manor house, the cloak, the garlic, or the Christian cross. Vampires are always shown in a romantic way, with their fangs, and all … I wanted my own vampire to be quite realistic and even scientific."

Of related interest: The
video of the Cannes Press Conference with Park Chan-wook and his leading actors, Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin is available at the festival's official website.

And though Dave Hudson has scooped up most of Thirst's Cannes coverage at
The Daily @ IFC, I might add Brian Hu's recent review for Asia Pacific Arts. "It's often said," Hu writes, "that what made Kurosawa's Shakespeare adaptations better than any of Hollywood's is that the change in culture and setting liberates the material from the need to create Shakespeare. Park Chan-wook's vampire drama Thirst benefits similarly." Hu notes the film contains "moments of pretension, interspersed with operatic brilliance."

One of my main reactions to Thirst, however, pivots around the issue of timing. Park admitted Thirst has been a project brewing for 10 years and I'm curious if that delay lost him an element of surprise? Writing for
Austin360, Charles Ealy observed: "If you've ever watched True Blood, you'll spot the similarities immediately." Alan Ball's HBO series True Blood, which premiered in 2008, includes a young vampire named Jessica Hamby, "made" by the protagonist vampire Bill Compton as a part of his punishment for murdering a fellow vampire. Raised in an overly strict environment, Jessica relishes being made a vampire because—through vampirism—she achieves emancipation. But her newly-won freedom based on ravenous instinct proves problematic. Sound familiar? Watching Tae-ju's character arc in Thirst, I was immediately reminded of Jessica Hamby in True Blood. What would the reception for Thirst have been like if Park had been able to get it filmed even two years earlier? I sense it would have hit as hard as Oldboy. Instead, because Thirst has come out a year after True Blood—whose vampiric erotics are now part and parcel of American pop culture—Thirst's reception has been weakened for feeling derivative, though as Ealy also qualifies: "[T]his doesn't mean that Thirst should be dismissed. It's quite stylistic, with the unmistakable imprint of an auteur." I mentioned this to the film's publicist who admitted that, indeed, timing was an issue in the film's reception; but, he wasn't convinced that the audience for Sookie Stackhouse's story would be the same audience for the subtitled Thirst. Still, the popular trope of vampire conversion as feminine emancipation is intriguing.

My favorite visual in Thirst was that of Tae-ju's veins nearly glowing beneath her skin. I'd never seen lust represented like that before. Not only Tae-ju's thirst for erotic gratification, but Sang-hyun's own thirst gone "irreversibly sexual." Brian Hu has written that the sexual energy in Thirst—more than being visual—is fabulously tactile and sonic. I wish Park could have spoken to how he worked with his sound designer to effect horror and how he and frequent collaborator Cho Young-uk decided upon baroque pieces of music to effect the film's romantic melancholy?

Finally, comparable to our discussion on the distinction between guilt and culpability, I wish Park and I would have had time to discuss the nature of Sang-hyun's righteousness. Park stated that he felt this was an example of nobility, from which he could stage the character's moral downfall; however, I actually took Sang-hyun's righteousness as the proverbial pride before a fall; not quite as noble as Park attests. In his righteous zeal, Sang-hyun allows himself to be experimented upon, resulting in his vampirism. At what point must one be responsible to the pride of righteousness? And what can be said of the dangers of conversion, whether religious or vampiric? "Vampires are a metaphor for all kinds of exploiters. I certainly do believe in the existence of exploiters," Park has said. I wish we would have had time to discuss the exploitive danger of conversion, both vampiric and religious.

Surprisingly enough, Park's attendance at San Diego's Comic-Con appears to have been overshadowed by the buzz over other studio projects. I haven't seen a smidgen of coverage from the
Los Angeles Times—who has been cranking out reports on the convention (maybe I just haven't seen it yet?)—and Ryan Connors' dispatch to ScreenRant described the Comic-Con panel for Thirst as "the Anti-Twilight." Noting that the crowd thinned out after the Kick-Ass panel, "only a few hundred hard-core fans remained for acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's first Comic-Con appearance, promoting his vampire-romance Thirst. [A] trailer for Thirst was played for the partly empty crowd."

Thirst opens in the Bay Area on July 31.

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