A Conversation with Cho Chang-ho on The Peter Pan Formula

by Paolo Bertolin

The Peter Pan Formula

  Director Cho Chang-ho's debut feature The Peter Pan Formula ("Peter Pan-ui Gongshik") was no doubt the most exciting discovery at the 10th Pusan International Film Festival. The film looks in on the troublesome coming of age of Han-soo, a high school swimming prodigy who suddenly decides to quit, and who is right after faced with his mother's attempted suicide, which leaves her in a coma and brings Han-soo skyrocketing credit card bills. The Peter Pan Formula provides an unconventional and brave look at the traumatic forging of an adult male identity, as mirrored and projected through a gallery of thought-provoking and sensitive female portraits.

This daring and complex feature may have not scored with the juries at the festival, which neglected it while consistently overestimating another Korean debut in competition, Yoon Jong-bin's The Unforgiven, but its inclusion in the international competition of the Sundance Film Festival and its selection in the Berlin Forum of Young Cinema already attest to overseas interest, and foretell a brighter international career for the film, at least in terms of festival exposure. Meanwhile, Cho's next project, set to be produced once again by LJ Films and titled Alright, It's Still Alright, has been selected for HAF, the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum, which takes place from March 20-22, 2006. The following conversation with Cho took place in Pusan on a pleasantly sunny and windy afternoon.

First of all, I would like to know about your background. What did you do prior to making The Peter Pan Formula?

I studied at the Seoul College of Arts, where I attended the film school. After that, I worked as assistant director on several films, including Kim Ki-duk's Bad Guy. I made a short film, A Little Indian Boy in 2001, and now The Peter Pan Formula.

The Peter Pan Formula How did you conceive the script of The Peter Pan Formula?

I don't know when it started, but for a long time I have had in me this basic concept of a very competitive swimmer who suddenly decides to stop swimming. For some time I tried to figure out how to develop it into a full-blown screenplay, then one day everything, plot, characters, and events all just flooded simultaneously out of me.

Was it difficult to find financing for a daring project such as this, especially considering it is a debut feature?

I didn't have that much trouble in meeting producers and getting funded. However the financing I did receive was so small, that the hardest thing was to actually make a film with that small amount of money. (Laughs)

Where was the film shot?

We had locations on the east coast of Korea, then on the west coast and in the southern region.

So there is no specific, recognizable background, a city or region, where Korean audiences are supposed to imagine the story taking place?

In selecting locations, the most important thing for me were the houses where Han-soo and In-hee live. There had to be a low barrier between the two households, allowing them to look at each other, but at the same time, if that wall were to be too low, that might have exposed the situation to a certain degree of voyeurism, which is something I really did not want to provoke. I had in mind a place where people can come and go, and meet each other comfortably on their way. I also needed for the whole setting around Han-soo and In-hee's households to have a feeling of a seaside village to it. Those are the two things I considered when selecting locations.

The seaside village setting allows the presence of a lighthouse, an image playing a strong, metaphorical role in the film. Was this image something you included in the script at the early stages of scriptwriting? Furthermore, this image seems to convey multiple and intricate layers of meaning, is there one you regard as more relevant?

The Peter Pan Formula As I just said, the plot, characters and events in this film all came out of me one day spontaneously. The image of the lighthouse was part of that flood of inspiration. Regarding its metaphorical meaning, what I think is that there are two sides, two meanings and perhaps more than two meanings to every event or every object. This especially applies to events or objects directly affecting one character. Therefore meaning does not surface in a linear way, but in the form of a conflict. It is an inevitable conflict when different or opposite meanings carried by the same object or event clash one with another.

As for the lighthouse, there are two or possibly more meanings attached to it. On the one side, and more obviously, it is a source of light, thus it might mean happiness, but on the other side, in my film it is also an unmanned lighthouse, without anyone in it, and that might prompt you to associate its image with that of the bed-ridden mother.

Then, what about the image of the mother herself? In particular, how does this image change in the eyes of Han-soo, who is left with only her body to care for, while he is also awakening to sexuality?

From the very start of the film, the mother is already deprived of any possible shade of maternity; she has already lost it as we enter the plot. That is why Han-soo has really nothing to rely on, and that is why he ventures on a quest for the source of maternity. A quest that leads him to roam back and forth between the body of the mother lying brain-dead in the hospital and the women around him. He is just in search of a place of rest.

The film portrays a quite disrupted panorama of the Korean family. On one side, we have Han-soo and his single mother, and on the other -- literally, because they are neighbors -- we have a family of three where In-hee is stepmother to her husband's daughter. This latter girl actually does not live with her parents because she is being taken care of at a psychiatric institution while recovering from a trauma. Furthermore, Mi-jin, the girl who looks after her mother in the same hospital room as Han-soo's mother, has sex in the nearby woods with a man we don't know much about, and plays as a vehicle introducing the theme of euthanasia. Inevitably, the whole landscape of human relationships in the film seems very distant from the one that caters to general Korean audiences in the ever popular TV dramas, where traditional family values are upheld. Was this different approach to contemporary social reality intentional?

It is all very coincidental. It was not my intention to portray the society of contemporary Korea. I actually think that the relationship between the specificities of today's Korean society and my film are completely irrelevant. And as for these elements as preconditions to make the gears of the film turn, in terms of the unfolding of events, I do not think they were absolutely necessary either. However what really mattered to me, and I strived to find a balance in this, was to talk in my film about the essence of relationships. I have felt that without questioning the disparities and the insecurities of people -- those things that push them in a quest for answers -- it would have not been possible to attain my goal. The very conditions for a quest in search of answers would have not been met. Pretty obviously, if everything is nice and perfect in life there is no need or urge for someone to start looking for answers.

Even though the film is not meant as a sociological portrait, don't you think that some audiences, especially more traditionally-minded audiences, in Korea as well as abroad, might feel put off or disturbed by the fictional reality you depict in The Peter Pan Formula?

Well, if I had wanted for my film to be about traditional families, if I had wanted to depict the social aspects of familial relationships, then I would have gone to the opposite pole, and I would have portrayed perfectly normal families in my film. But this film does not deal with ethical issues among family members, and as a director I was much more interested in delving into the inner essence of my characters, their lives and relationships. When making the film I did not feel any burden about the possible reaction of audiences, and I do not have any problems with that now that the film is completed and being screened either.

I was not only thinking of familial issues, though. It seems to me that aspects involving the sexuality of the teenager Han-soo might be even more contentious. Don't you think the very oedipal relations he entertains with his mother's body and with his neighbor In-hee may once again be off-putting or disturbing for general audiences?

The Peter Pan Formula Of course a lot of people perceive what is going on in the film as simply a sexual matter, and Han-soo himself feels that way in the initial stages of the story. But as the film progresses, you can see Han-soo asking In-hee to fondle him or to sleep with him, and it becomes pretty clear that these kind of actions do not spring from sexual desire. Han-soo is on a quest to find the essence of his inner self, and I think this basic point is revealed as the film progresses. Once again, I did not worry about what audience might perceive or not perceive in the film. There are already so many things to worry about when making a film!

However, I would like to add something about the scene where Han-soo washes the body of his mother. It is a big thing for him, because at first he does not really want to look inside the womb of his mother. There is indeed a primarily sexual reason for his refusal, as audiences will guess. And it is so too for Han-soo, but afterwards he realizes that it is not so, and the whole issue is lifted to another level in the middle stages of the movie. In the beginning, when Han-soo looks at the body of his mother, he cannot help but see it as an object for sex and love, and the film also explicitly shows it in such a manner. But as the film progresses, Han-soo starts realizing that a woman's body is not just an object, that it can act like a mirror reflecting the self, reflecting him. That is the reason why the film ends with faces looking at each other through the reflection of a window.

What about the depiction of Han-soo as a young male character lingering between regression and the attainment of maturity? As you said, Han-su progresses from a stage where he is sexualizing all female bodies around him to one where he recognizes them as a mirror reflection of himself. At the same time, when he cries to In-hee that he wants to get inside her, or when at the very beginning of the film he swims underwater for a seemingly interminable time, these images play as metaphors of regression towards the maternal uterus. Han-soo is indeed lost after his mother's suicide attempt, but I am wondering whether he is actually moving towards full-blown adulthood, or if instead he's trapped in the impasse of a regressive stage. In this respect, the unattainable lighthouse played to me also as a metaphor of manhood, of male sexual maturity, and inevitably so for its phallic shape...

You have actually asked me the question that is the core, the most important part of my film. (Laughs) What impresses me most, though, is your new perspective on the lighthouse, as a metaphor of the phallus! (Laughs) To answer your question, though, I would like to start by looking at the very beginning f the film. The way a film starts is always crucial to its overall meaning and in The Peter Pan Formula we see a long scene where Han-soo decides not to pursue swimming anymore, without any apparent outer influence, and before that, he stays underwater for a long time. These two elements are indeed very important and worth keeping in mind. Then, Han-soo comes out of the water and cries while taking a shower. That's how the film starts and that's what the film starts examining afterwards: why has Han-soo decided not to pursue swimming anymore? Why did he stay underwater for so long? Why did he cry in the shower? The Peter Pan Formula is a quest for answers to all these questions.

The Peter Pan Formula In this process, as I mentioned before, all events and objects are configured as having two or more possible meanings. When these meanings conflict with each other, this conflict creates interesting possible exchanges and interactions. As for the specific case of the lighthouse, I did not think of it as a phallus, but I mostly focused on the interaction of meaning between the image of the mother and the image of lighthouse. The interpretation of this metaphorical interaction is actually open, and I wanted to leave total freedom to the audience in decoding it. From the point of view of the audience, for example, the lighthouse might first stand as a metaphor for the mother herself, or secondly as a separate, completely different thing. However, if you equate the lighthouse with the mother, then I feel the film would be simplistic. If you accept the second hypothesis instead, then you have to bear in mind that both the lighthouse and the mother may convey multiple meanings, and possibly these are conflicting meanings, colliding and interacting with each other. Each and every interpretation leads you to a different perspective on the film, all legitimate.

As a director I wanted the audience to perceive the lighthouse and the mother as separate, so that the film could really have some flavor. The whole process involving conflicting and colliding meanings is what I intended to work upon to make The Peter Pan Formula interesting. As for the key question of Han-soo's identity, whether he's progressing or regressing, if you look at the ending, when Han-soo is watching his mother while she takes a shower, you might definitely think that such a scene depicts a regression. On the other hand, the sequence does not stop there. If the film ended with Han-soo just staring at his mother taking a shower, that would have meant a regression, but since right after that Han-soo looks at the window and we see him swimming towards the lighthouse, which does not permit anything to approach it, I think this is no regression. Remember he also takes up swimming again in the final stages of the film! I would say that the process he faces, that of becoming independent from his mother, leads him to insecurity and the temptation to regress, as he does not have shelter and comfort anymore, and does not know where to go. But in the end, when he learns to turn away from his mother, then there is no regression at all. That is what I truly wanted to show with The Peter Pan Formula.

The Peter Pan Formula The title of your film is The Peter Pan Formula. Do you know there is also a Peter Pan Syndrome, defining the state of an individual who does not want to grow up?

Well, can I ask you a question, instead?

Yes, go ahead.

I have been telling you that the film is not about a regression, that it is about the growth of Han-soo, but... do you really buy that? Is my explanation plausible to you?

As you said, the film is playing with double meanings all the time, allowing the audience to apprehend different nuances according to different interpretations of the same metaphor. Therefore, I felt your explanation could be totally acceptable. However, from my own point of view, I had the feeling that the ending of the film was once again stating strongly Han-soo's impasse, and perhaps his refusal more than his inability, of attaining adulthood. Or at least his refusal of those aspects of (male) adulthood incarnated by his newly-discovered father. Han-soo taking his mother's place and watching his reflection in the window really played to me as a deeply disturbing image, and by no means one of attained maturity or independence. And as for the dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, image of Han-soo swimming towards the lighthouse, frankly the lighthouse itself still looks very far off and inattainable, while the nighttime setting with the pitch-black sky and sea really does not convey a reassuring feeling...

Well, I tend to agree with you, actually.(Laughs)

So, what about the Peter Pan Syndrome?

When I conceived the plot and while I was shooting the film, I was not at all aware of the Peter Pan Syndrome. Then one day, my assistant director told me about it, and wanted to discuss the aspects of the syndrome related to the depiction of the main character in my film. That was the first time I had heard of it. However, I had already decided the title of my film prior to knowing about the Peter Pan Syndrome. It is just a coincidence.

We discussed extensively the relation between Han-soo and his mother, but can you just devote a last thought to the character of the father? It is his denial of fatherhood that triggers a complex and psychologically violent reaction in Han-soo, eventually leading to the final act of the film.

My perspective on the character of the father is actually pretty simple. I am trying to be unjudgmental towards everyone in The Peter Pan Formula. He has lied and he is still lying, yet his actions can be understood within the circumstances of his life. I am not saying his deeds should be pardoned, yet I can understand where he comes from.

Paolo Bertolin, PUSAN October 2005

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Koreanfilm.org, posted January 21, 2005.