Sympathy for the Old Boy...
An Interview with Park Chan Wook by Choi Aryong
(conducted June. 8, 2008, translated from Korean by Aryong Choi-Hantke and Steffen Hantke)
Choi: First of all, thank you for making the time for an interview even though you are currently busy shooting your new film Evil Live (Bakjwi ,2009).
The first film of yours I ever watched was JSA: Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbiguyeok JSA, 2000), which made a strong impression on me. Later on, though, I didn't watch Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi,2005); because of the film's title, I was afraid that the film would be emotionally overwhelming. Same thing with Old Boy (2003): when it was playing in theatres, I heard about it from friends and colleagues, and all that one of them said about it was, “It is not easy to watch.” Many viewers were also talking about Lee Woojin, the character who imprisons Odeasu, and the Yoga pose he strikes, bending his entire body. Actually, I did get to see this one odd scene. After watching it, I discovered that I disagreed with most other viewers about the theme of sexuality in the film, especially considering the name of the character.
Park: Hmm . . .
Choi: I was also intrigued by the image of Geumja, the main character of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, used in the advertising poster for the film. And so I finally went back and watched your earlier film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot, 2002). . . . I noticed that you write scripts for other directors and their films as well as for your own.
Park : Yes.
Choi: The films for which you wrote the scripts are immediately recognizable, even though you didn’t direct. Just as in your own films, you tend to return to the same themes: the single mother, the adopted child abroad, the manual laborer, the insane, the North Korean spy. In all of these films, there is also a similar mood.
Park : Is there really?
Choi: The characters are also a consistent element, especially the way in which you name them.
Park: It's really nothing special. I named Oh Daesu in Old
Boy to remind the viewer of Oedipus. I was thinking of Greek myth or the
classics. The character in my new film, Bakjwi (the vampire) is named
Taesu (Taeju). Right, it comes from Thérèse (of Emile Zola)
Park: Ah, that may be a coincidence. In that movie [The Boy Who Went To Heaven], there is also a character named Nemo.
Choi: Nemo means “nobody” in Latin.
Park: Well, in the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there is a Captain Nemo. Actually, one of my friends named his daughter Nemo. He liked the Captain Nemo in the novel, and in that particular case, the name really does mean "nobody." In Korea, people usually advise others to “lead a well-rounded life" (meaning: avoid all extremes). I wanted to play with that idea a little: "lead a life with angles” (meaning: "nemo" as in the Korean word "square"). So I named the main character Nemo in that film.
Choi: In Trio (Saminjo, 1997), there is a character named Maria. In Old boy, when the daughter of Oh Deasu, Mido, was adopted, she changed her name to Eva. In JSA, there is a Sophie Jang.
Park: The name Sophie doesn't have a deeper meaning. My daughter’s given name is Sophia. In the case of Eva—well, I am also using this type of association in Evil Live (Bakjwi), the film I am shooting right now. In Bakjwi, there is a new kind of Virus: E.V. It is named after the doctor who developed it, a Catholic priest named Emmanuel; hence, E for Emmanuel, and V for Virus. The film is dealing with the disease triggered by this virus. And in the film, there is a character from the Philippines, a woman called Eve. I guess I do really like that name . . .
Choi: The reason why I assumed that you use names as a means of characterization is that they always add something new, especially when adapt an original source text. The novel DMZ, for example, is the source text of your film JSA. It features a character named Lee Yeunwoo, whom you have re-named Jang Yeunwoo. He has a son called Bersami, whom you have turned into a daughter named Sophie Jang. Another character, Kim Suhyeok, is renamed Lee Suhyeok
Park: Ah. Sophie has lived abroad, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. As her family name, I prefer "Jang" to "Lee/Yi." In French, a name like "Jean" sounds natural and the pronunciation is suitable for a first name as well. What I had had in mind with Sophie Jang was an ambiguous person, someone that others might think of as Korean or French. Being called Sophie Jang, she doesn’t immediately come across as Asian or Korean. She could have grown up free from all prejudice against Asians. She could have grown up without doubts about her identity and without knowing that she belongs to a Korean family on one side. Only after she was dispatched to the JSA in Korea did she learn about her father and the history of the Korean peninsula, and recognize that division always means tragedy. So, yes, her name is very important in the film. [smiles]
Choi: In the novel DMZ, Bersami, who is Lee/Yi Yeunwoo’s son, has known that his father used to be a North Korean soldier, and so it was he himself who told his father’s story to another Korean soldier. In contrast to the novel, Sophie, Jang Yeunwoo’s daughter, learned about her father’s identity as a North Korean soldier through General Pyo. Consequently, she was fired from her job as the investigator of the murder at the JSA, the border between North and South Korea. Her father being North Korean could have resulted in a loss of objectivity for anyone dealing with Sophie. Is this your way of addressing the so-called Yeun Jwa Je, the South Korean system used to discriminate against the descendents and the relatives of communists or partisans or pro-North-Korean activists?
Park : Yes, that was my intention. It was actually better for her not to know her own identity. If she had known it, she could have been second-guessing herself as an investigator or could have even refused to be in charge of the investigation. So I wanted her to visit the JSA as a blank, without knowing anything about her father’s story at all. Her approaching the truth from this void, this zero point, makes the mental development of the character more dramatic. In the end, her identity, based on her father’s story, plays an important role in her limitations as she reveals the truth. It reminded the Korean audience of Yeun Jwa Je —the fact that she had to live with losing her position as an investigator.
Choi: I was wondering why Oh Kyoungpil and two other soldiers,
Jeong Wojin and Nam Kyeongpil, have the same names as in the original
text, while Kim Suhyeok is renamed Lee/Yi Suhyeok. Could it be that you
replaced Lee/Yi Yeonwoo with Jang Yeonwoo and named his daughter Sophie
Jang in order to replace Kim Suhyeok with Lee/Yi Suhyeok?
Choi: I started wondering why you changed the family names of some characters in some of your other films as well. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, there is Lee/Yi DongJin, in Old boy Lee/Yi Woojin; in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Lee/Yi Geumja; in The Boy Who Went to Heaven, Lee/Yi Buja.
Park: That stems from my feeling about this particular name. “Lee(?)” is simple in both writing and pronunciation. This simplicity evokes a sense of purity, cleanliness, and naivety—an image of something undecorated, unadorned. So that's why I think I prefer “Lee/Yi” in my films.
Choi: Meanwhile, the policeman in each film is called Choi Banjang: "Detective Choi."
Park: Really? Maybe it comes from Choi BulAm, the character in the soap opera Susa banjang? But I'm not really sure . . .
Choi: I heard that the set in JSA was almost identical to
the real Panmunjeum building. In the case of the Swiss office where we
see Sophie Jang, its outside was painted red. Did you find the location
already being painted this color? I was wondering if the buildings around
the Panmunjeum are really painted red; after all, red is the color of
communism, and thus of North Korea.
Choi: Wasn’t there the possibility of censorship if the walls of the building were painted red?
Park: At the time, the political climate in Korea wasn't so repressive. . . . Ah, another reason to paint it red was that I wanted to give the audience the impression that the house was more like a toy rather than a real residence. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at Panmunjeom is actually neither an influential nor a useful institution. Its members don’t know the situation on the Korea peninsula well enough. They are just going through the motions, following the same old inflexible rules. General Bota is also such a character, someone who is just holding on to his position. I get the impression that the committee is distracting from the fact that nothing ever changes on the Korea peninsula. Therefore, I thought the red color, like that of a children's toy, was appropriate.
Choi: In the source text, the novel DMZ, Nam Sungsik, a South Korean soldier, used to be a student activist before starting military service, and Oh Kyoungphil, a North Korean soldier, used to protest against the regime of North Korea. But in the film JSA, these back stories of both characters have been omitted in the process of adaptation.
Park: It's still true that Oh Kyoungphil worked as a military instructor in foreign countries. But I tried to get rid of all kinds of prejudice related to the personality of Lee Suhyeok. He doesn’t have any ideological orientation. His point of view about the situation of the divided nation is like Sophie’s. He is a normal college student, a teenager who just wants to get through his 2 year-military service at the JSA and then return to his ordinary civilian life.
Choi: To me, one of the most impressive scenes in JSA is the one in which Lee Suhyeok steps on the mine in the bushes during a night drill and starts crying and peeing his pants out of sheer terror. At that moment, he's a human being with whom we feel immediate sympathy.
Park: If he were an entirely reasonable person, who always behaves logically, the film might not be very interesting. In the film, even though I didn’t go into detail, I want to show that he is just an ordinary guy . . . just normal person, an average student at the local college.
Choi: Two things occurred to me after listening to you. Just as you depicted the offices of the Swiss neutral committee as an imaginary space, did you also intend to create an unrealistic space by using the color blue in the film I am a Cyborg, but that’s Okay? In that movie, when Cha Younggun rides a bicycle, all the water tanks on the roof tops are blue, which is unlikely since water tanks in Korea are usually yellow?
Park: It happened to be a place that really had these blue tanks. When we did the location scouting, I considered that element. There is a reason to select that kind of place. In the film, blue is not such a critical color. More important are the pastel color tones, mixing primary colors with white water paint: they're much more suitable for this film, I thought.
Choi: Whenever I talk to non-Korean viewers about your films, they always mention the fantasy scene in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in which you show a half-man-half-dog. Still, Korean audiences don't seem to like that sort of thing. Maybe fantasy is not easily accepted in Korea?
Park: No, Korean audiences don't go for that sort of thing. Korean audiences put up a struggle before they accept fantasy, it's true. Maybe Koreans traditionally reject the use of fantasy. One of Seven Sins mentioned in the film [i.e. Cyborg] is “Useless Illusions." Don’t indulge in useless illusions. Fantasy is regarded as useless, without merit. So we [Koreans] tend not to be flexible enough to accept it.
Choi: I am also very interested in your representation of the body. According to the original text of DMZ, Kim Suyeok takes a gunshot to the shoulder, but Lee Suhyeok in JSA is shot in his leg. In the Vengeance trilogy, the characters have diseases. Is there any system as to how you connect the disease to the character?
Park: Just practical considerations. I selected the leg as the wounded body part in JSA to create difficulties for the character in his coming and going between South and North Korea. If he can’t run quickly, it exacerbates his difficulties. Moreover, it is related to the so-called Bridge of No Return [Dolaogi annun Dari], the most important spatial background in the film. And as I already said, the film is concerned with the wounding of legs and feet. I wanted to concentrate on the theme of “coming and going”: “coming over-,” “going over- the border," which is why legs and feet feature so prominently throughout the film.
Choi: In the novel DMZ, the setting of the story is a field next to the observation post on the border between the two Koreas. But you turned it into the Bridge of No Return. In Korean, that name is associated with legs [dari] and the bridge [dari], but when translated into English or other languages . . .
Park: That kind of nuance doesn’t work in translations. However, the leg is a universal symbol of movement, of coming and going, of crossing over . . . .
Choi: In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, characters in each film have the same disease, which requires a kidney transplant.
Park: Kidneys are the most commonly transplanted organs.
Choi: In Old boy, Lee/Yi Woojin has an artificial heart.
Park: I'm not sure if that's medically accurate or not .
. . maybe. I used the heart because it's the organ that, as soon as the
person dies, stops functioning.
Choi: To me, every character in I am a Cyborg is imagined with so much depth: the unmarried farmer, and the man who keeps saying, “I am sorry, I am sorry,” after he witnessed an accident caused by another driver who fled the scene of the crash.
Park: The story of the unmarried farmer is a lie fabricated by the female patient who is compulsively inventing stories. Aside from the farmer’s story, the more important thing in that film is sexuality. The patient who makes up stories explains all of the other patients to Cha Younggun when she arrives at the hospital. Her explanations are full of sex. Of course, it is obvious that she is a compulsive liar and that she herself has sexual problems. At the same time, it also shows that the popular discourse on mental diseases, particularly in film, tends to revolve around sexuality. It's especially true in psychoanalysis where it's become a kind of cliché. I don’t want to argue about whether psychoanalysis is necessary or not. I am worried that making films or analyzing films focuses so strongly on sexuality. I for one wanted to remain detached from psychoanalysis.
Choi: And yet the story of the unmarried male farmer raising a baby cow in his room could suggest to the audience that a sexual desire like bestiality or zoophilia plays a part in that story, too.
Park: Well, that’s the point, even though every story turns out to be a lie. I wanted to move away from the image of the idyllic countryside. Incidentally, in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I was pursuing the same goal. The male character who constantly apologizes represents someone who is excessively kind to others, excessively modest, excessively well-mannered, and feels excessive regret. As it were, he is a character defined by exaggeration. We meet people like that every day. They're just never diagnosed since their illness is really just a matter of degree.
Choi: That character almost seems to express a feeling of guilt, perhaps that you yourself couldn’t do anything more than be a witness or observer of such a crucial political event as the Gwangju civil revolt [also referred to as the May 18 Democratic Uprising] in 1980—an event for which the car accident in the film might stand as a symbol.
Park: Well, all directors of our generation in Korea have that kind of feeling. Even though nobody mentions it directly, it creeps into every film, into every scene.
Choi: Someone wrote that your films, for example Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, have numerous characters and that their relationships tend to be extremely complicated. This makes it difficult for the audience to follow the narrative.
Park: In my films, are there really that many characters?
Choi: For example, in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, there are all these female prisoners . . .
Choi: Same thing in I am a Cyborg . . .
Park: The patients, you mean.
Choi: Yes. The story of each patient is dealt with in some detail.
Park: Now that I think about it . . . In Lady Vengeance, all the parents of the kidnapped children are shown. Well, I guess I never realized that my films have that many characters. Mr. Vengeance and Old boy don’t . . .
Choi: Even in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ryu meets an old man who takes off his pants, and Lee/Yi Dongjin meets the laid-off worker who commits suicide with his family.
Park: In Cyborg, one crucial theme is the exchange that takes place among the patients, for example, the sympathetic effects of fantasy. While one patient's fantasy cannot happen in reality, it might still influence another patient. The fantasy itself, the illusions of the mental patients, constitute an independent universe. It is explicitly existent in the consciousness of the patients. Only the so-called "normal" persons call it an illusion or fantasy. To the patients, it is reality, because they are living in this world of fantasy. Someone is observing me, following me secretly, and checking what sounds I make. If I imagine this situation vividly enough, then it makes sense to assume that intelligence agencies from all over the world must be tracking me wherever I go and whatever I do. To me, this isn't fantasy, it's real. To enter the reality of someone like that, to enter into an entire society of people like that: that's what I wanted to do in my films, which is why I needed so many characters.
Choi: I wondered if you were trying to show a broad spectrum of social existence in your films.
Park: Yes. But then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance tries rather to focus only on one character.
Choi: Still, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance ends up with a large cast. Except for the female prisoners, there are the five kidnapped children and their parents. By the way, is there a reason why there are five kidnapped children?
Park: You mean the number of children?
Choi: Yes, five: quite a large number.
Park: Well, the more children the kidnapper kills, the more evil he is. So the number of children is necessary. Well, instead of children . . . it's not that I had a special interest in this type of crime. Everything in the film is a kind of allegory, a metaphor. Because it is a story about the exploitation and destruction of an essence, of a pure existence, I needed children.
Choi: When the parents watch the video of their children, you do show the killing.
Park: There is one scene of killing a child, and even that one depends mostly on your perspective. All you really see, if you think about it, is a chair tumbling down. So I don’t think I really showed the killing of a child.
Choi: Many horror films from other countries tend to be more violent than Korean films. In Korea, the audience isn't used to seeing direct bodily harm.
Park: Yes. I have my own standards. In some cases, it is more effective not to show the violence; however, in other cases, showing it is more effective. But the standards differ from one person to the next. There are movies which get me to feel intense anxiety--something I am somewhat embarrassed about. But then, some viewers feel shocked or frightened watching with my films. Some even complained. I think there are different criteria among people. I am often embarrassed because I can’t watch movies that others enjoy.
Choi: What are these films that you can’t watch?
Park: Above all, I can’t watch films that are categorized as horror films. Korean mainstream films usually feature a few violent scenes. I don't like to watch someone getting punched. That sound when flesh is hit. Hitting someone's head with a chair, and so on. Recently, I watched the film Girl Scout; it's light entertainment, a film with a bunch of Azumas. And even that film gave me the creeps.
Choi: I'm really surprised. I thought you'd enjoy horror films.
Park: In the past, I used to watch horror films on a small screen. But nowadays I've lost my appetite for it.
Choi: Someone noticed that, in your films, English functions as an important part of the characters. Lee/Yi Woojin in Old boy studied in America.
Park: I have always been interested in Western Culture. And I think it is important to recognize that Western culture was influential in Korea. Therefore, Sophie in JSA speaks English, Mr. Baek in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is an English teacher.
Choi: In Old boy, there's a sign on the building where Odeasu is imprisoned that reads “Uhakwon" [Institute of Foreign Studies].
Park: Yes, well, Western culture has influenced and changed many aspects of Korean society. And it is the culture which Koreans tend to overestimate, often at the expense of our own traditional culture or values, about which we Koreans often feel much more conflicted and ambivalent.
Choi: In JSA, Nam Sungshik, the South Korean soldier, memorizes English vocabulary by looking up words in the dictionary and then tearing the pages out of the dictionary and chewing them up.
Park: It is in I am a Cyborg that eating is most important. Eating is a more basic act than any other in human life. How and what people eat shows who they are: "eating” the dictionary, overcoming the rote memorization of English in JSA. Eating is the most basic behavior and ironically it can be the most extreme. Eating things which are not edible can function as an extreme form of expression.
Choi: In Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the evil woman, Manye, eats the flesh of her husband who had a love affair with another woman, and Mr. Baek has sex with his wife while eating; in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Ryu eats Ramen noodles and then he has sex with his lover.
Park: Something like instinct and something ambiguous….to evoke the feeling of something raw. Those feelings are connected and associated with each other.
Choi: What about eating the dictionary?
Park: Yes, eating the paper from the dictionary is a part of his personality. All my films are interested in this. I myself am not good at speaking English; I haven’t spent much time studying English. However, I don't worry about it either. But Koreans place a lot of emphasis on English, as well as on studying abroad [i.e. in America]. So I'm extremely interested in cultural collision and cultural transformation. In Bakjwi, I deal with it directly and more seriously.
Choi: In the original text of Old boy, Togima, the counterpart
of Lee/Yi Woojin, is an entrepreneur who becomes wealthy in the real estate
business during the bubble economy in Japan. Lee/Yi Woojin in the film
is also an entrepreneur, but he studied in America, and this becomes the
secret of his success. In the film Cut [one segment of Three...Extremes,
2004], the director Ryu is also someone who studied in America.
Choi: It's different from the boxing practiced by Odeasu. In Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Geumja is meditating behind Mr. Baek's back, tied up with rope.
Park: Yes. Ah, yes [laughs]. Actually Geumja, as a character, is not likely to meditate or practice yoga. This wasn't planned or storyboarded but improvised during the shoot. Everyone thinks of meditation as a way of emptying one's mind and removing desire. Ironically, Geumja might be thinking of the imminent bloody assassination and punishment, indulging in these violent and homicidal images. I thought that kind of ironic contrast was interesting.
Choi: Considering the case of Ryu in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Geumja in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I found that your characters often stray from the norm. Even though they are brought up in poverty or extremely limited economic conditions, they often have extraordinary skills, like painting or cooking.
Park: Ah, yes, you can also see that in Ryu decorating his house in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Often, there are mistakes in depicting the poor and poverty. I'm extremely bothered by this type of stereotyping. In every country, including Korea, you can find a visually astonishing and unique beauty in slums and poorer communities. This beauty is not created by professors and world-renowned architects, but cobbled together out of mismatched furniture or wall paper as time goes on. It's easy to overlook. It's also true of the characters. Not being well-educated is one thing, having a unique manual ability is another. Everyone has a unique personality and ability, so I 'm doing my best not to simplify this fact.
Choi: I think when films introduce characters, they often confirm certain stereotypes. In your films, it seems that you try to break away from all that.
Park: I think this is important.
Choi: In Oldboy, a part of the room is lit red. It reminded me of Im Chulwoo’s novel The Red Room.
Park: Do you mean the prison cell? What is the novel?
Choi: Among Im Chulwoo’s novels, there is one called Red Room. The protagonist is an English teacher who helps a political activist by giving him giving shelter for a while. One day he is kidnapped by the police, imprisoned in the red room, and tortured.
Park: I didn’t intend to make the room red. The pattern is more important than the color.
Choi: The pattern? You mean how it repeats itself and turns in on itself?
Park: I wanted to say, “There are no exits, we can’t get out of here.” Actually, there is something on which our crew gave up because of technical problems. Odeasu is endlessly looking at the monotonous pattern, almost as if he practices facing the wall. He is growing insane and finally the wall becomes three-dimensional. Like when we see through magic eyes, the patterns grow detached and different layers separate from each other. And he walks into the gap between the layers. I wanted to shoot the fantasy that Odaesu believes he can walk into the gap and get out of the room through the passage.
Arch; In your book, Park Chan Wook Pays Homage (2005), you said that green, the color of Ryu’s hair, is "the color of putrefaction."
Park: It depends on each film. There are no fixed concepts when I discuss color with the set designer and the DP.
Choi: In the case of green, I saw it as a means of identifying the characters.
Park: Yes, that's true, but I can’t remember the details. Color symbolism in films functions to give consistency to the characters, to distinguish them from one another, and to create a certain mood. It serves several purposes.
Choi: In JSA, it seemed to me that you intended to break the ideologically constructed image of Bbalgangi [i.e. Red people, communists] by using red for the Swiss committee.
Park: At the time of shooting JSA, that was the purpose. But I don’t have to do it any more after I did it in JSA.
Choi: As a viewer, I was suddenly reminded of Kim Hyeonhee, the terrorist responsible for the KAL 858 bombing, just seeing the image of the Lady Vengeance poster for the first time: the image of that the woman with long hair and sunglasses, dragging a piece of carry-on luggage, wearing an outdated print dress.
Park: Right. Yes, that's exactly where the image comes from, especially when Geumja is arrested and photographed by journalists, lead on both sides by a policeman.
Choi: The poster makes it look like Kim Hyeonhee is moving around an international airport.
Park: Yes, that was the inspiration. Because Lady Vengeance deals with terrorism, I think it makes perfect sense for you to think of Mayumi [Kim Hyeonhee's pseudonym], the terrorist. There is a sense of legitimacy in the private punishment of arresting and killing Mr. Baek because he is almost evil . . . In my mind, that's always been about terrorism.
Choi: Given all the similarities between Kim Hyeonhee and Geumja, I thought that you deliberately tried to remind the audience of those events.
Park: That was one purpose, yet at the same time it also expressed my personal historical memory. To live in the same moment and to share the history—that's the function of the imagery.
Choi: In the film Old boy, Odeasu is released after fifteen years of imprisonment. The limit of prison terms for murder in Korea used to be fifteen years. So you set the time at fifteen years so that Odeasu can live his life regardless of having murdered his wife?
Park: More than that, it is the time it takes until Mido, his daughter, is grown up so that Lee Woojin's vengeance can be accomplished.
Choi: I thought Lady Vengeance was a film with multi-layered implications. Considering the fifteen-year-imprisonment of Odeasu in Old boy and the Korean prison term limits, I was encouraged to think of the duration of Geumja’s thirteen-and-a-half year-imprisonment along the same lines. In Lady Vengeance, there are five kidnapped children, and the abduction in the story takes place in the same year as the real-life case of what was then called “the missing frog-boys.”
Park: Even though the motif is not crucial to the film, that particular kidnapping stayed with me after I'd read the pre-release copy of a book about the case written by a criminal psychologist. In the end, the book was never published because the publisher was afraid of protests from the missing children’s parents. The story, however, was worthy of a film. The criminal psychologist became obsessed with the case and started investigating it himself; finally, he wrote the book presenting his own conclusion. According to the book, one father, whose kid was one among the missing children, killed all five of the children. Because of this book, the case of the “missing frog boys” impressed me deeply.
Choi: You seem to talk about these different crimes by superimposing one upon the other. On the surface of the film, it is simply the story of revenge meted out by a single mother who lost her child. But at a deeper level, you are connecting it to social issues.
Park: Everyone watching the films has the experience of revisiting memories, of remembering the forgotten past and the things that happened; this is true both for the director and the audience who have lived in the same place, at the same time.
Choi: When the audience watches your films and fails to
get your point, how do you feel?
Choi: As I was preparing the interview questions, I was worried that you wouldn't want to talk about the terrorist Kim Hyeonhee and the role she plays in Lady Vengeance.
Park: Although I hadn't thought of it, and thus didn’t intend to show it in my film, I remember the period when there were reports about the incident in the media all the time. So maybe this was my subliminal idea, and your memory of the image made it explicit.
Choi: When you discuss films in your collection of film criticism, Park Chan Wook Pays Homage, you show a great deal of sensitivity to numbers. This is why I jumped to the conclusion that you must be aware of the symbolism of numbers in your own films as well—hence, my question about the number of missing children, the year of the historical events, and the length of Geumja’s prison term.
Park: Originally, I had tried to make a film based on the story of the missing frog boys. It was to be different from the actual events, taking into account the investigation by the criminal psychologist who, despite his obsession with the case, completely failed to turn up the truth. That was the film I started out to make. But when I got started, the skulls and bones of the dead children were discovered. I still could have made the film, but . . . The psychologist worked out a detailed time schedule for the events, and thus arrives at his own theory. He claimed that the children's bodies were buried close to the toilet of this one house. The police started digging, but there was nothing there. I was interested in the story and, therefore, wanted to make this film. Some of it is reflected in Lady Vengeance.
Choi: I asked an attorney about the statute of limitations and the punishment in cases of kidnapping and murder of children. In Lady Vengeance, Geumja is released from prison after thirteen and a half years. Why? And how?
Park: Our team also did its research: she was a model prisoner.
Choi: And her actions showed concern for others.
Choi: Could it be that you wanted to show that the parole regulations are a kind of blind spot when it come to the prison system? Although everyone knows, and will say so in public, that Geumja killed someone, still nobody will punish her.
Choi: In Lady Vengeance, you showed Go Sunsuk, the North Korean spy, dispatched to South Korea, and in the film The Boy Who Went to Heaven, for which you wrote the screenplay, Nemo's father is a North Korean communist.
Park: Right. Right. [In Mr. Vengeance] Cha Youngmi says she will meet Kim Jong Il.
Choi: Doesn't this address the tragedy of Korean society, the tragedy of the division of Korea? It doesn't just manifest itself within the JSA, but it happens everywhere in the daily lives of the Korean people.
Park: Yes. Right, it happens everywhere in daily life. So
when we live our lives without a care in the world, we can always encounter
someone directly related to that tragedy, and through the relationship
with that person, the tragedy touches us, too. In that way, I come to
take on what someone else used to carry by himself. The tragedy of the
Korean division, which seemed to have nothing to do with Geumja, comes
down to her with the gun the old spy hands her. This is the network that
makes up society.