THIRST (BAK-JWI, 2009)—Interview with Park Chan-wook

Winner of this year's Cannes Jury Prize Ex-aequo, Park Chan-wook's ninth feature Thirst polarized audiences arguably satiated with blood and violence in a festival line-up described as the most sanguine in Cannes history. Surveying the aggregate compiled by Dave Hudson for the IFC Daily, Thirst received a fierce dismissal from Daniel Kasman at The Auteurs Notebook—who found the film apparently stupid and hollow—as well as a gushing endorsement from Blake Etheridge at Cinema Is Dope who tagged it "the first masterpiece of 2009." In his admittedly more moderate concurrence for Screen Daily, Darcy Paquet stated that at "its best moments, Thirst offers something of the poetic force of cinema's timeless masterpieces." Poetry being a glittering crown to place on the head of a narrative, one has to take such anointments with a smidge of caution. Todd Brown's assessment for Twitch weighs the pros and cons quite fairly, ultimately queuing in the con camp.

"While hardly a favorite of the festival," Eric Kohn dispatched to The Wrap, "Thirst succeeds as a lively crowd pleaser." The film did well with its Korean audiences on opening weekend, scoring nearly $6,000,000 in box office. Thirst contains several firsts: 1) It's Park Chan-wook's first vampire movie and, indeed, his first venture into the genre of supernatural horror; 2) it's the first mainstream Korean film to feature full-frontal adult male nudity from one of its leading box office stars (which might have had something to do with its opening weekend box office); and 3) it's the first Korean film co-produced by U.S. studio Universal Pictures International, distributed by Focus Films. Focus, in fact, has done an admirable job promoting the film on its website Film In Focus. Not only have they provided a succinct and well-written career overview by Scott MacAulay, but they've included three intriguing slideshow surveys: Nick Dawson profiles 12 of the directors grouped into the "New Korean Cinema"; Anne Billson provides a short history of the vampire film; and Peter Bowen addresses the issue of "sexy priests".

By separate entry, I'll finesse the film in more detail; but, for starters, here's my transcript of a conversation I had with Park Chan-wook when he was in San Francisco for the film's press junket. My thanks to John Weaver at Terry Hines & Associates for setting up this one-on-one and to Moho Film's Project Development Manager Wonjo Jeong for his translative assistance. Further thanks to the suggested query from Twitch teammate Ard Vijn. Warning: This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!

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Michael Guillén: Welcome to San Francisco! Have you been driving around like Jimmy Stewart in compulsive pursuit of some elusive object of desire? I understand that's the specific scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo that compelled you to venture into filmmaking? Did I Confess have anything to do with Thirst's sexualized priest?

Park Chan-wook: For me, the film Vertigo itself is an object of desire. I've seen a limited sampling of locations where Vertigo was shot while in San Francisco; but, I didn't have enough time to make it to the cemetery at Mission Dolores, which is of course an important location for a pivotal scene in that film. But rather than seeing any particular San Franciscan location, what has been most attractive to me about Vertigo is Jimmy Stewart's literal pursuit of Kim Novak's character. That's what I like in Vertigo. There isn't a particular scene or bit that I like in the film; it's Stewart's overall pursuit that I enjoy. There's several point of view shots and endless roads and streets that he travels following her.

Pursuing Vertigo as an object of desire, however, is a desire that cannot be filled because so many things are different now than when the film was shot: the atmosphere is different, the air at the time, the kind of sunlight at the time is something that cannot be recreated. My pursuit of a Vertigo "experience" is something that will probably remain elusive forever.

Speaking of Hitchcock and influences, especially from his film Vertigo, the surrealism that Hitchcock captures in realistic moments is something I'm always trying to achieve. Looking at North by Northwest, for example, its villainous, bitter and dark sense of humor is also something I always strive for. But I Confess? Though Montgomery Clift is an actor I like very much, the film itself not so. In all honesty, I can't even recall the film very well.

Guillén: Via Twitch teammate Ard Vijn: Some of your movies, notably Oldboy, have been based on mangas, and often feature sequences which are full of visual jokes and fantastic elements. I'm A Cyborg… especially contained some stunning, playful and abstract images. Are you interested in creating a fully animated movie?

Park: A lot of directors say during film production that—if they had more money—they could build a set that they could destroy, take a wall out and move a camera around, and be given total freedom to shoot a film in whatever way they want. There's also the restriction of the "magic hour": there's a very limited time of the day when you can utilize the beautiful sunlight as it sets during the magic hour. Directors always complain about these restrictions and limitations placed on them while creating their art. That being said—with so many directors complaining about restrictions and limitations—why don't they all switch to animation? There must be a variety of reasons.

Speaking for myself, my reason is that there are no actors involved. What I mean by that is that—in my filmmaking—I thoroughly prepare storyboards. In fact, I prepare a storyboard for an entire film from start to finish. This is a means of controlling my production as much as I can. I try to plan ahead as much as I can from the earliest pre-production stages. However, an actor's performance is the only element that cannot be calculated 100%. Often your film will depend upon your actor's performance, ability and passion. Amid all these things that I've predicted and prepared for and the plans I've set in place, the only thing that still holds an element of surprise is an actor's performance. It's by always being ready to be surprised by an actor's performance that I'm able to still be tense during a film shoot. If it weren't for that variable, shooting film would be a boring process where everything is predictable and everything goes according to plan.

Animation is a fully-controlled environment, as opposed to a live-action film where there is still an element of surprise in an actor's performance that the director can't fully control or anticipate 100%. Just for the sake of argument—and not because I think directors are God—but, if directors were God, would this God prefer a world where every human acts in accordance with His will? Or would this God find it more interesting to watch over a world where humans are given free will with which to act? Within that metaphor, an argument could be made that it's preferable to be a live-action director than an animation director. Despite the fact that it probably is more interesting to be in a situation where humans act off free will, when I watch animation films like Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In the Shell or Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira—very well-made animation films—I feel a desire to do animation films. So who knows? I might actually go ahead and do an animation.

Guillén: Can you speak to the connective tissue between Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin and your film? When did you first read the novel? Why did it speak to you? And what did you sense was potentially cinematic about it? Accordingly, what elements have you felt have most successfully transferred over into Thirst?

Park: I began thinking about this story one night 10 years ago and—even within that first imagining—it included the scene (which made its way into the film) where Sang-hyun strangles Tae-ju. Despite being overcome with sorrow, he can't resist his lust for blood and he begins to drink her's. Within moments, however, he realizes how animal-like he has become drinking the blood of someone he loves so much. He decides to give his blood to her, thereby reviving her, but as a vampire. All the details of that scene came up when I first thought of this story 10 years ago.

After I first thought of the story, it ended up on the shelf for years. Where this woman came from, how he fell in love with her, the details of their relationship, were all left blank. Then one day I came across Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin and—when I first read the novel—I meant to make a separate film; but, then I thought, "Why not fuse Thérèse Raquin and the vampire story?" Why I felt I could do this was because—when I fused the two together—I felt Thérèse Raquin filled in the blanks left by the vampire story. I first visualized this scene where Sang-hyun turns Tae-ju into a vampire—and his subsequent realization of the true nature of his sucking the blood from someone he loves, being shocked by his own behavior, and his attempt to reverse the process by turning her into a vampire—10 years ago. I first visualized that moment of realization as taking place in the bath room where Sang-hyun would catch his reflection in the mirror and realize what he was actually doing. But I didn't actually like using this device of the mirror because it was the easy way out. Anyone could think of using a mirror in this situation.

Instead, I came across Thérèse Raquin. I felt the character of the mother-in-law (Madame Raquin in the novel; Lady Ra in the film) could stand in for the mirror. Rather than using the actual mirror in the bathroom, I could use her observing eyes. When Sang-hyun's eyes meet hers during this scene, reflecting her shock and horror, he realizes what he's doing. As an audience member, you might consider this a minor detail; but, for a filmmaker like me, it's possibly one of the most important decisions made making this film. Once I came across this piece of the puzzle—inspired by Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin—everything else fell together.

Guillén: You have said "No one will be able to conceive of the religious issues that are embedded in Thirst." Let's take that on. For me the strongest religious issue in Thirst was the subtle distinction between guilt and culpability. Did you intend to address that distinction? How do you distinguish guilt from culpability?

[At this juncture the interpreter asked me what I meant by "culpability" and I said that—as I intended it—guilt is an emotive response of conscience; feeling "bad" about something one has done—whereas, culpability is something at fault within an individual, inherently "bad", for which an individual is truly blameworthy; but, for which—notwithstanding—he or she must likewise be responsible.]

Park: You have actually put your finger on a point I repeatedly emphasize in my films. This priest Sang-hyun has become a vampire despite his wanting to do a good deed. He didn't ask to become a vampire. What's worse, he was actually trying to do something good. Vampirism has befallen him. His identity has become defined for him. His choice was not involved in this process. Perhaps he could have just accepted his fate and become a "good" vampire living by whatever his desires dictated? He might have even found happiness living the life of a vampire the best he could? Instead, Sang-hyun struggles against his identity as a vampire, which opposes his teachings in the Catholic faith and his moral standards as a human that include not committing murder and so on.

In Sang-hyun's struggle to live as a vampire while holding onto his human faith, we see him fall into ridiculous, contradictory situations. Ultimately, he ends up killing a woman he loves, turning her into a vampire. This she-vampire is honest to her instincts. She revels in the fact that she has become a vampire and finds pleasure in killing people. Sang-hyun, as priest, feels responsible for this and—despite the fact that committing suicide is also a sin in Catholic teachings—he takes responsibility for creating a creature who he knows will kill many other people. Sang-hyun is a character who—as you say—feels culpability. He tries to take responsibility even though he probably doesn't have to—he was forced into his situation; he didn't choose to be a vampire—but, whether it's right that he tries to take responsibility right up until the end or whether it's wrong, whether it's a smart or stupid thing for him to do, accepting responsibility is up to each and every individual to decide. I find Sang-hyun's decision to take responsibility for his vampirism, noble and heroic. He achieves integrity through his attempt to accept responsibility for his actions.

To take a specific example from Thirst to highlight where I've made a distinction between guilt and culpability, I cite the scene where Sang-hyun is trying to justify his killing people who want to commit suicide anyways. He says that—when he meets these people who want to commit suicide and whose blood he drinks—they seem to have a comfortable and peaceful death. In a way he feels he is helping them somehow. That's, of course, a ridiculous justification—it's only an excuse for taking their blood—and killing them in the process is, of course, a sin. Yet, in order to avoid the sin of committing suicide—in this case indirectly because if he chose not to survive, if he chose not to drink other people's blood, he would (in effect) be committing suicide—Sang-hyun kills because he needs other people's blood to survive. Thus, in order to avoid committing the sin of suicide, he's helping kill those who want to commit suicide. Of course this is not logical; but, this is nevertheless Sang-hyun's attempt to avoid guilt. It's his attempt to stop feeling bad about the wrong things that he does. By film's end, he ultimately realizes his behavior is morally corrupt, he has committed sins, and he takes responsibility for them. That's how I distinguish guilt from culpability.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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