‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-wook on the new age of K-cinema

South Korean film director Park Chan-wook speaks during an interview with CNN in Hong Kong, China, on December 8, 2023.

South Korean director Park Chan-wook talks to CNN about revenge, inspiration and his forthcoming adaptation of “The Sympathizer.”Noemi Cassanelli/CNNHong KongCNN — 

Park Chan-wook understands revenge. The 60-year-old South Korean director, best known for his psychological thrillers, has often imagined how he’d get even, lying awake in bed thinking about those who’ve done him wrong.

“Maybe I make the kind of movies that I do so I don’t execute those feelings,” Park told CNN in Hong Kong, where he recently hosted a filmmaking masterclass at the M+ museum.

“I never take action, but I do think about it a lot,” he added, speaking through a translator. “I think about how I’m going to cause trouble for that person… what ways can I inflict the most pain. It’s helped me with my movies.”

Park’s films deal with the darker, more taboo sides of human nature, telling tales of revenge, incest and tragedy. His 2016 feature “The Handmaiden,” a loose adaptation of Welsh author Sarah Water’s “Fingersmith” set in 1930s Korea during Japanese colonial occupation, is a love story amid a twisted world of patriarchal control and perverted eroticism. He is also known for a trio of movies dubbed “The Vengeance Trilogy” — “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” — as well as the 2022 film noir romantic thriller “Decision to Leave.”

The Sympathizer is an upcoming historical black comedy drama television series developed by co-showrunners Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. star in “The Sympathizer,” an upcoming historical black comedy drama series developed by Park and Don McKellar.HBO

More recently, he has turned his hand to the story of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy told in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer.” The HBO adaptation, for which Park serves as co-showrunner and executive producer alongside Canadian actor and filmmaker Don McKellar, stars Robert Downey Jr., Sandra Oh and Hoa Xuande. It chronicles the life and dilemmas of The Captain, a North Vietnamese double agent who is forced to flee to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War, and lives in a community of South Vietnamese refugees whom he continues to spy on. (HBO is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company.)

“Americans may not know well, but the fact that South Korea participated in the Vietnam War is a very significant event for Koreans,” said Park, explaining what drew him to the project. “A country divided into two, suffering a severe ideological crisis… and going through war, civil war… South Korea has been through such tragedy as well, so this didn’t feel like someone else’s story to me.”

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Park Chan-wook reflects on “Oldboy” and his latest projects with CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout.

03:54 – Source: CNN

Everything old is new again

Amid sustained global interest in South Korean pop culture over the last decade, the country’s domestic and diaspora cinema is garnering an international following, and its directors are increasingly recognized overseas. Park told CNN he thinks South Korea’s tumultuous recent history — a transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent loosening of censorship restrictions — has helped create the on-screen magic produced by Korean directors in recent years. “We are people who have experienced a deeper and wider range of emotions,” he said. “This itself is not necessarily a good thing, but I think it helps in making movies and dramas.”

“Now, you may ask why good movies were not made immediately after democratization, why it took 10 to 20 years. This is because the generation that’s used to processing thoughts based on censorship could not suddenly spark creativity immediately after restrictions were lifted. It only bloomed artistically when the generation that grew up able to watch work created in a creatively unfettered era became filmmakers,” he added.

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Among this new generation of directors is Bong Joon Ho, whose movie “Parasite” — a black comedy thriller about the Kims, a poor family that seeks to infiltrate the lives of the wealthy Park family — offered an incisive look at class inequality in South Korea and won four Oscars, including Best Picture, in 2020. Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” which follows the struggles of a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas, meanwhile received six nominations and one Academy Award (for Youn Yuh-jung in the best supporting actress category) a year later.

In fall 2021, director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game,” a thriller in which hundreds of financially destitute characters compete in deadly children’s games, struck a chord with viewers and became Netflix’s most-watched TV series to date. The streaming giant said its audience data showed that over 60% of all Netflix members watched Korean titles in 2022.

Park, who was named best director at Cannes in 2022 for Decision to Leave, said Bong and Hwang “played much bigger roles than myself” in introducing Korean TV and cinema to the world. He believes that he and his fellow directors were not looking to appeal specifically to overseas audiences, but that they tried to think deeply about “what a human being’s universal emotions are” and the situations people everywhere find themselves in today. “That’s what arouses sympathy from people and viewers around the world,” he said.

Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden (2016).

Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in “The Handmaiden” (2016).IMDB

One theme that Park’s work explores — and one that resonates both in South Korea and abroad — is the place and treatment of women in society. He and Jeong Seo-Kyeong, the female screenwriter behind many of his biggest hits, frequently collaborate to create complex, compelling and relatable women characters. In “The Handmaiden” they show the potential of a woman’s sexuality and autonomy, while with “Decision to Leave” Park said he wanted to subvert ideas around perspective, starting out with the “full-on male gaze” of the male protagonist Hae-joon before switching to that of Seo-rae, the female lead, in the second act.

“I’m not saying the female part overwhelms the male part. It’s almost like the balance is met in the end,” Park said in an earlier interview with CNN, adding: “(Seo-rae) is no longer this enigmatic figure that the male protagonist needs to solve.”

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Whether he’d ever brand one of his movies as feminist is another question altogether. “I just express my point of view and what I think is right,” he said. “In that sense, I’ve always been a feminist, and I think I make movies (that are feminist).”

“But that doesn’t mean the women portrayed in my movies are always the kindest, most heroic and righteous. I don’t think that’s what makes a movie feminist,” he added. “Women can make mistakes, they can do bad things, and they can also be foolish. I think a feminist movie is what portrays all those aspects (of women) and also gives life to a character as autonomous, independent and detailed. This is what I think makes a feminist movie.”

Riding the Korean wave

It may be Park and his team’s uncanny ability to transcend language barriers while addressing themes like redemption and justice that has kept movies like “Oldboy,” which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, as cult favorites. Park believes that their appeal is not just about shock value (think of the famous “Oldboy” scene in which vengeful protagonist Oh Dae-su eats a live octopus) or novelty (the film’s celebrated single-shot, close quarters fight scene that has been likened to a video game), but the universality of human emotions and classic stories that give his films longevity.

Choi Min-sik in Oldboy (2003).

Choi Min-sik as protagonist Oh Dae-su in “Oldboy” (2003).IMDB

In recent years, streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have taken note of K-cinema and upped investment. Following the success of its supernatural spy series “Moving” last year, Walt Disney Company Korea, Kim So-youn, told a press conference in September that funding for the genre would in fact “gradually increase,” according to local newspaper the Korea Times. Earlier in the year, Netflix announced plans to invest $2.5 billion over the next four years to produce more Korean movies, dramas and reality shows.

Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said at the time that stories produced in South Korea represent “the global cultural zeitgeist,” citing the success of shows such as “Squid Game,” as well as “The Glory” and “Physical: 100.” Soon after, the streaming giant announced that Park would co-write “War and Revolt,” a Korean thriller set in the late 16th century that tells the tale of two childhood friends turned adversaries. The director, who has now finished shooting the series — his most expensive production to date — commended Netflix for “supporting (his) vision without huge interference, in terms of creativity.”

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After his two latest television projects wrap up, Park hopes to return to the big screen — with both South Korean and US productions in the works. “I have many projects in the pipeline, and I don’t know which one will be next, but among them are Western, sci-fi action and a psychological thriller,” he said.

He https://menghadapimu.com also added it was unlikely he would use AI to produce his movies. “I’m skeptical about whether AI could really make an ingenious and artistic piece,” said Park adding that he thought the technology could not — and should not — replace writers and producers.

“But maybe, I could use it this way: After I write a script, AI could check whether it’s similar to a movie I’ve watched or haven’t watched. Maybe I could use it to check if my script is unintentionally like another movie.”

CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout, Jadyn Sham, Gawon Bae, Laila Shahrokhshahi and Thomas Page contributed to this story.

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