Capone Talks To Chan-wook Park About THIRST, And More!!
Published at: Aug. 13, 2009, 2:14 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here, with an interview I picked up at Comic-Con a couple weeks back, but wanted to hold onto until the film THIRST was making its way into a wider variety of theaters, which it is this weekend. The interview is with a masterful director named Chan-wook Park, and if all I told you about him was that he directed OLD BOY, that would be enough.
But writer-director Park has done so much more than that. I remember specifically the day when my local Asian cinema connection handed me a copy of JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA, and I was completely mesmerized by this statement on the situation between North and South Korea. Not long after came SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, a very fucked-up movie about organ transplants. Then OLD BOY blew across the world like a typhoon of revenge, followed shortly by LADY VENGEANCE to close out the vengeance trilogy.
I recently caught up with Park's take on mental illness, I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK. When it first premiered in Asia, I'd been told it wasn't particularly good, and whoever told me that isn't my friend any longer. The movie is devastating and inventive, and while I may not have guessed that Park directed it, it still stands as one of his best (and is currently unavailable as a Region 1 DVD, which blows my mind). THIRST is Park's vampire saga, with a story that filters out a lot of the distractive qualities of so many other vampires stories throughout history. It's relishes in its blood, while taking the time to tell an honest story about what happens when an honest, good man becomes a vampire and systematically begins breaking every vow he's ever made. Did I mention the man in question is a priest? I probably should have. It's a tremendous work, and it's the reason I got to spend a nice bit of time with Park during Comic-Con to discuss guilt, sex, and an ocean of blood. In person, Park has a serene quality to her person. He carefully contemplates each answer, and they read beautifully. We spoke through an interpreter, who may have cleaned up the grammar, but I don't think that's the case. Park seemed like one of the more intelligent people I've ever sat in a room with, and it was a great joy to discuss the much deeper meanings of his works. Enjoy Chan-wook Park, and beware of some pretty major spoilers.
Capone: I loved THIRST immensely. Obviously, there are no shortage of vampire films in the world. What did you hope to bring to the vampire lore? And, what rules did you set for yourself about things you would and would not do within the vampire structure?
Chan-wook Park: It may sound like a joke to you, but, seriously, the beginning of this was something very simple. I had the idea of telling a story about a Catholic priest first, so in having him turn into a vampire…If he had a fear of the cross, or the crucifix, it just wouldn’t make the rest of the story viable at all. So, actually, I had to get rid of that convention. And also, in Korea, all the food that you eat has garlic in it. They put garlic into everything in Korea. So, if you’re scared of garlic, there’s no drop of blood you can feed on in Korea.
So, taking away these clichés, these conventions one by one…Since these two had to go at the beginning, I got to thinking, Why not take out more, as much as I can? And, not only did it not make less sense, even after I took the conventions away, it still made sense as a vampire film. And, not only that, but it actually exposed the true nature of vampirism. I was able to deal with the essence of vampirism better by taking away all these conventions. And also, another thing that I wanted to set out to do was to try and create the most realistic vampire film in the history of cinema. So, with that objective in mind, this worked very well. And, taking away all this mysticism from the vampire tradition, taking the curtain away, as it were, that shrouded vampirism, it was left with only the core essence of vampirism to deal with the true nature of vampirism.
Capone: I know that you have said before that you like to destroy genres that you work in. I guess this would qualify, correct?
CwP: [laughs] Well, rather than use the extreme expression and say “I’m the destroyer of genres”…How can I destroy the whole genre by my lonesome? It’s probably impossible, but rather, I would like for you to call to mind this line of dialogue from the film where Tae-joo says to Sang-hyeon, “You are a germ.” And, much in the same way, in the world of genres, as somebody who’s only miniscule in terms of size of influence, I would like to consider myself as a germ who enters into the system of genres and creates changes, or changes the DNA or the makeup of the genre in some way, and causes this genre to become sick.
Capone: By making the lead character a Catholic priest, you invite discussion of the nature of guilt. He clearly feels very guilty about what he’s doing. And, yet, as the film goes on, he sort of systematically breaks all of his vows and every commandment. Please talk about the theme of guilt.
CwP: The funny thing is after he becomes a vampire, the way he does all these bad things becomes more visible, but even before becoming a vampire, this priest had some problems. He did have some issues. Now, he’s a priest who works at a hospital, looks after all these patients, but he’s not able to give them any real help. And, his attempts at trying to help them always turn out to be futile. And, all he can do is step back and pray for these patients. And, that’s why he comes to doubt his own faith and doubt himself. And, he starts to play with the idea of killing himself. In the confessional, he is actually advising against self-hatred or self-loathing or committing suicide, but when he’s doing that, he’s actually talking about himself as well.
And, that sort of leads to this desire to, this want…The way he wants to commit suicide sort of leads to the idea of martyrdom as well. So, by risking his own life and volunteering for this medical experiment, he’s contemplating martyrdom. So, this is why when he comes back from Africa and survives the ordeal, there is some part of him which wants to believe all this labeling of ‘miracle worker’ or ‘wounded healer.’ It plants the seed of self-pride in him. So, even before he became a vampire, there were all these issues and baggage surrounding this character.
So, at the end of the film, we have these two elements of guilt. In terms of this sense of guilt, we have two things that he is feeling guilty. You can look at it from the outside. Externally, you can easily identify that he is really responsible for creating this monster, creating Tae-joo, and having her become a vampire. So, he’s really responsible for that. Internally, he is feeling guilty about self-pride in that he’s letting these followers, these worshippers think that he may actually be, in fact, a miracle worker. He’s maintaining this fantasy that he might be some sort of saint-like figure for them.
So, the last two things he does at the end of the film is that…of course, he destroys himself along with Tae-joo in sunlight, and that’s his response to this external guilt of having created a monster. Another thing that he does, he proves in front of all his worshippers he is not a saint. He is anything but when he pretends to try to sexually assault this woman. And, by doing that, he is cutting loose all that people hold up and look up to in him. And, he’s punishing his own self-pride. He’s punishing himself for having thought, even in small amounts, that he may indeed be a saint-like figure for the people, a subject of worship.
I’ll tell you how serious I thought this pride he had in himself was…When he commits that murder at the lake, kills his friend, he’s in a state of panic, and he comes to the old priest for consolation, to be comforted, or talk about what he’s just done. But, there are all these worshippers camping out in front. And, he flies up and goes above them in order to reach the old priest. You could see that and think that maybe he’s desperate to see the old priest right now, and out of desperation, he uses his ability to fly over them. But, the reason I had him fly over is because he wanted to show off to his worshippers that he had this superhuman strength, superhuman ability. And, this is evidence of how actually this pride that he had for himself was very real, and it’s at quite a significant level.
Capone: That’s how I read it, actually. That it was him showing off a little.
My last question concerns the one aspect of vampirism that you didn’t stray from in this film. You made it a very bloody movie. You really showed how messy this lifestyle would be in the real world. Did you enjoy showing how unclean a process it is to kill somebody?
CwP: [laughs] Because, comparatively, I wanted a realistic approach. I wanted to express it in a way that came across as something that could actually take place in real life. And, to make the audience feel that it could be almost something that takes place in the real world, to make an appearance. So, I didn’t really go for the fancy glamorization of this process.
So, that’s why at the end of the film, just before Sang-hyeon dies, he looks out to the ocean and, from his point of view, you see this fantastical image of these two whales swimming across an ocean of blood. And, this is almost as if they are swimming across a sea of Burgundy wine, so I wanted to create this beautiful image. And, I asked the effects team, the CG studio, to actually make the sea have the color of Burgundy wine. This is what I wanted.
And, you have these two whales…When you look at them, they might seem immortal. They seem immortal, and they seem very innocent and pure. And, these two whales are swimming across a sea of blood, and they are able to drink blood as much as they want. This is an image for the character, who before this had to go through some dire circumstances, had to go to some length to acquire his blood and had to really struggle to get his blood…I wanted this as a gift for the character: Now, you can have this sea of blood and swim around and drink all you want. And, by doing that, I probably ended up with a scene with the most amount of blood ever in the history of cinema. And, we may go to the Guinness Book of Records to see if it is official. [laughs]
Capone: Director Park thank you very much. It was great meeting you.
CwP: Cheers. Thank you.
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