An Interview with Park Chul-soo
by Adam Hartzell
This was the first time I was to do a face to face interview, and I was more anxious than nervous. Park Chul-soo can take much of the credit for the fact that I devote my writing to South Korean film. 301, 302 was the first South Korean film to receive an international release and was appropriately the first South Korean film I ever saw. Having seen and enjoyed Push! Push!, Kazoku Cinema, and Farewell, My Darling, in that order, I had several questions for Park that I have saved up for many years. Here at the 7th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy might be my only opportunity to ask them. However, I was aware that I would only have about fifteen minutes of Park's fame, so I chopped up my kilo of questions down to some measly grams of two or three. Which, in a sense, is all I got to ask.
Park is great to interview in that he gives very full answers, along with interesting tangentials to what you asked and animated, fully gesticulated responses. He understands English aurally enough to not require much translation when I asked him a question, however, he answered in Korean. In this particular interview setting his Korean was translated into Italian by one translator and then into English by another. So the usual secondary information one has to be cautious about concerning the answers provided through a translator was further distanced to the tertiary degree. Consequently, I will not directly quote Park here, but simply narrate what was possibly shared between the two of us with still two more individuals positioned between us. Much was sure to be lost in translation, but this was not a scene out of Lost In Translation. Each of us involved in this meta-conversation respected the others place in the network and wanted to usurp the barriers as much as we could while still aware of the limitations.
The first question I decided on was regarding Farewell, My Darling. Released in 1996, it was a film about a family returning to their home village after the death of a patriarch, a film in which Park makes a cameo as the eldest son of the patriarch, who just happens to be a film director, returning from Seoul. Later the same year, Im Kwon-taek would release Festival, a film about a family returning to their home village after the death of a matriarch. In that film, Ahn Sung-ki plays a novelist who is the eldest son of the matriarch, returning from Seoul. Quite a coincidence, if it was one. So I had to ask Park first about this.
Park said that it was indeed a coincidence, neither he nor Im were aware of the other's plans. When Park found out about Im's film, he wasn't taken aback at all, finding it interesting that this synchronicity happened. However, apparently Im was embarrassed by this and Park reports that their interactions have been awkward ever since. According to Park, film students have actually appreciated this thematic crossing, comparing and contrasting the differences. (I have done this as well in my reviews of Farewell, My Darling and Festival on the site here.) Park sees the films as very different. Im focused on the aesthetics of death, the beauty in the traditions surrounding it, while Park focused on what death has to tell us about everyday life itself. Whereas, the similarity between the films that Park highlighted was that they both tanked at the box office. Park suggested that this might explain the awkwardness that persists between Im and him now.
Park had more to say about everyday life itself. He has an idea for a future film that involves the ordinariness of our days. He commented on all the people walking around us as we talked, how his film would represent the regular things they do. He elaborated on this idea of a film about daily life by emphasizing how Korea, being the remaining divided country from the Cold War and the South's massive, quick growth, particularly through the information technology industry, has experienced an enormous loss of humanity and a great increase in competition between people. Park would like to explore these matters in one of his next films. He added that the here and now experience he was having being interviewed would be a great scene for such a film. It would be interesting to look at how the meaning would change after having my American English words heard by his Korean ears translated by her Korean-Italian voice into his Belgian-English interpretation of her sounds, returning to my bewildered ears and now recalled by my humble memory buttressed by my lousy tape recorder.
My next question had to do with the fact that he used the same actresses in 301, 302 and Push! Push! and then placed them in a similar space across the hall from each other. I was curious what he intended with that choice. Park said that he intended nothing. He simply works with whomever is available, whomever is not working on other projects. He doesn't want to deal with the star system, so he simply calls upon actors and actresses he knows or might run into at a bar and asks if they'd be interested. So, concerning Push! Push!, it was as simple as Pang Eun-jin and Hwang Shin-hye being the first two actresses available that he asked.
Part of his revulsion towards the star system is the fact that he wants to be the "commander", a word Park spoke in English a few times, hence why I am comfortable quoting it here. He wants the actors and actresses to simply present the characters he developed, not add anything to them as a star. In order to control their established iconicity, stars might be more likely to demand a say in their characters, something Park seeks to avoid.
This made me wonder about the paparazzi figure in Green Chair. This film follows the sexual exploits of a thirty-year-old woman (Suh Jung of The Isle) and a boy on the edge of 19 (newcomer Shim Ji-ho). (This makes his character still underage in South Korea.) She is released from jail early with the stipulation that she commit to three years of community service. As soon as she leaves the jail, however, her young lover meets up with her (sans tofu, however, as is customary) and the paparazzi swamp them. One paparazzi in particular returns often. Each time, this about-a-boy confronts him, confiscates his camera, ties him up, leaves him somewhere, and calls the paparazzi's colleagues to retrieve his bounded body. At one moment of confrontation, the paparazzi says to the boy something along the lines of 'You two are going about things just as I envisioned.' I asked Park if he meant this paparazzi character to demonstrate the "commander" he was talking about. As I was asking this question, Park's head was nodding in agreement quite vigorously, confirming my interpretation before I had even finished my question.
To further demonstrate Park as Commandeer, he discussed how he found the actor who played the about-19 character. Turns out Shim is the son of a woman who is one of Park's biggest fans. However, when she found out that Park would intend the characters to really have sex, that Park wished to avoid the impediments of genital-hiding, skin-colored panties, she was quite offended. Yet, in spite of Shim's mother's protests, Park commanded ahead with his intent. I am not clear if Park intended Suh and Shim to really really have sex. The scenes are in no way graphic enough to confirm whether or not they really are. (And I wasn't about to risk being perceived as some kind of pervert by pushing for clarification. I was already getting made fun of enough here by the Italian women at the cafe in the theatre lobby who refer to me as 'Cappuccino Boy' due to my mass consumption of the espresso drink in order to keep away the effects of jet lag and to complete my daily reports from the festival for the GreenCine blog.) However, it was clear enough from what I could see that no panties were perpetrated here.
This was, sadly, all the time I had with Park. I had many more questions to ask and wished I could have asked them, but I will have to accept the limited access I have for now. Just as I had to wade through the meta-translations, I will wade through his works without much access to him to answer my questions. The indirect avenues of his ideas through his films are valuable enough consolation prizes for Park's more direct words.
UDINE April 26, 2005
I would like to thank the staff of the 7th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy for providing me the time to interview Park Chul-soo, director Park Chul-soo for his patience with my questions and his passionate responses, and Korean-to-Italian translator Choi Yoon-jun and Italian-to-English translator Tom De Smet for their willingness to navigate through all the nuances in translation to provide me their fullest understanding of what was said through all the linguistic roadblocks.