Best known for his disturbing revenge drama Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-wook‘s latest film Thirst, now released on DVD, is a subversive and original take on the vampire genre. Sophie Moran sat down with the director during the Korean Film Festival in November 09 to talk about priests, vampires, desire and revenge.
Sophie Moran: In classic horror films, priests and vampires are enemies by nature. What gave you the idea to turn one into the other?
Park Chan-wook: It goes back to my childhood memories. In the Catholic Church, a priest drinks red wine as a symbol for the blood of Christ, and in a way this always reminded me of vampirism. I actually wonder why nobody had thought of this before [laughs].
SM: Thirst is not only a twisted vampire love story, but also a thriller, a horror film and a black comedy with a touch of film noir. How difficult was it for you to write the script?
PCW: I’d been planning Thirst for about 10 years, but I didn’t work on it consistently. For a long time I had only two scenes written. One is the scene in the beginning when the priest is being transfused with vampire blood, thereby becoming a vampire himself. The other was the scene in which the woman he falls in love with becomes a vampire too. That was it until I came across Emile Zola’s ThérÃ¨se Raquin. I loved the style of the book, the fact that it’s not romantic or sentimental, which was similar to the approach I had in mind for this film. So, the book inspired me to start working properly on the script and to eventually make the film.
SM: Thirst offers a unique take on the vampire genre, and I wonder if there is a vampire myth in Korea that has influenced you?
PCW: I’m not an expert on Korean folklore, but as far as I’m aware, there is no vampire myth in Korea. The Korean title of the film is ‘bat’, which symbolises vampires in the Western world, and it’s the stories about characters like Count Dracula that constitute some sort of modern vampire myth in Korean culture today. I wanted to tell the story of a character who doesn’t belong to one world but who is torn between these two different worlds, and about the dilemmas that creates. Sang-hyun, the main character, is not just a vampire but also a priest, who wants to do something good but gets caught up in a twist of fate. He loses his ability to control his desires, but he is still trying to hold on to his identity as a priest, as well as grappling with his new identity as a vampire. And I wanted to create a story that deals with this dilemma of identity.
SM: On top of his own personal dilemma, Sang-hyun falls in love with Tae-ju, the wife of an old friend. In fact, barring the horror elements that come into play, the film feels primarily like a love story.
PCW: Yes, from the very beginning it was always going to be a love story. I never conceived the film as a horror movie, and therefore I put in the most effort trying to develop the story between the two main characters. I spent a lot of time ‘shaping’ Tae-ju’s character and trying to find the right actress who would fit in perfectly with the two male leads, and who would have the right chemistry with Sang-hyun. Of course, I can’t deny the fact that there are scenes and elements in the film that you would associate more directly with the horror genre. But these sequences are built into the story to serve as a hurdle or an obstacle to the romantic relationship between Tae-ju and Sang-hyun. So the horror elements exist to function in that way. But in the end, the last shot shows two burnt feet in that old pair of shoes from an earlier scene, which is probably the most romantic scene in the film. The film comes back to the pair of shoes as a symbol of their love finally coming together, and their two bodies becoming one.
SM: Your previous film, I’m a Cyborg, also dealt with love, but in a very gentle way. In Thirst, the love scenes seem rather harsh and cold.
PCW: I decided to remove all the romance and clichés that classic love stories are based on because in Thirst I wanted to explore the real side of love. I mean the fact that love can give one not only the strength to survive, but that one can also achieve something through love, and that, to some extent, love is always selfish.
SM: Although the film has a more realistic approach to the notion of love, it seems that there has been a shift from your revenge trilogy to more fantastical stories.
PCW: I have to agree that in the course of my films the fantastical or surreal elements have become more prominent. Since Thirst is by nature a vampire film, it cannot but have such fantasy elements in it. But at the same time, for a vampire film this is probably the most realistic vampire film that you can find. And this duality is what I like most about this film. In Thirst, fantasies and realism are fundamentally in conflict with one another.
SM: You said earlier that Tae-ju’s character was very important to you from the beginning in regard to her relation with the male leads. Did you also think about how Tae-ju’s dubious character, and her own emotional journey, would be perceived by Korean female audiences while you were developing the story?
PCW: Her character may be seen as some sort of comment on contemporary society to female audiences in Korea, but I didn’t intend anything like this while I was writing the script. The idea of imprisonment within a family or a household is already found in ThérÃ¨se Raquin. It’s a story about a person who is trapped within these boundaries and who feels very much suffocated by the way the household is ruled by the mother and the husband. I wanted to explore that idea further on an existential level. But if you look at the terrible actions that Tae-ju takes as a vampire, for example, you have to consider the whole personality of this character who is as innocent as a child in a way. Children can be very cruel, for instance, when they play with small animals or insects. They tear them apart and rip off their wings and so forth. But they don’t realise that what they are doing is cruel. They don’t understand what they are doing but still, to us their actions are violent. It’s in that sort of context that you have to see her actions as a vampire. At the same time, this might come across to the audience as emancipation or liberation for the female character, but it was never intended as such.
SM: What relates Sang-hyun to the main characters in your revenge trilogy?
PCW: All these characters are haunted souls in a way. In Thirst, the desire for blood and the desire for sex are connected, but ultimately it’s a matter of life and death, and the drive for survival. And revenge is just a different desire in this context. We all dream of vengeance sometimes, and it is something that stimulates our fantasies, something we need for our own personal well-being. At the same time, in real life revenge is not honourable. But if we don’t give vent to our feelings, our desire for it increases proportionally towards those who offended us. It’s that kind of inner conflict that interests me. These characters attempt to take responsibility for the decisions they make. Things may not always turn out well for them, but because they are at least trying to account for the consequences of their actions, they are able to achieve some sort of integrity after all.
SM: Do you consider yourself a moral filmmaker?
PCW: I don’t see myself as a moral filmmaker, and I don’t like categorising myself. I am just very interested in characters who try to take responsibility for the results of their actions. I think this is what I’m trying to deal with in my films.
Interview by Sophie Moran