The meetings feels rather clandestine compared to standard publicity affairs. At the end of a hotel hallway, a press agent’s bedroom is converted into a pop up interview suite with just enough space for two chairs, one for South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook and another for his ever-present translator.
Such modest surroundings are commonplace for a foreign-language master like Park and the select cinephile journalists who make time at every festival to sit down with the philosophical South Korean auteur. It somehow feels right to be alone together in the shadows, debating the projections of cinema violence.
Park, best known to his fans for the 2003 film Oldboy, about a man mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years and who seeks out revenge against his captors once he’s freed, makes his first American movie after a prestigious career on the world stage, the mother/daughter thriller Stoker starring celebrity actress Nicole Kidman, no less.
For Stoker, his ninth feature, a visit with the somber dressed and soft-spoken Park suddenly revolves around Hollywood razzle-dazzle via a red carpet world premiere alongside the cast; one where he teases out the fairy tale aspects of the movie, describing it as the story of “one very special little girl.”
The red carpet throngs may be lining up for a glimpse of Kidman, yet, for the creative team around Stoker, it’s clear that the diminutive director with the thick helmet of black hair is the true, superstar in the crowd.
“I would have flown the entire world just to say one word directed by him,” says Judith Godriche, who plays a supporting role in the movie.
Park’s newfound embrace of showbiz glamour continues via a catch-up conversation during his major U.S. publicity tour, this time from a plush suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington DC.
Fresh off an impressive opening weekend in select cinemas before expanding nationwide throughout March, Stoker will introduce Park to the largest audiences of his career thanks mainly to Kidman and co-star Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland’s Alice). Still, he’s insistent that coming to America did not require him to alter his model for filmmaking. Basically, Park insists that he went about his job in suburban Nashville the same way he works in Seoul.
“It was no different then working with actors back in Korea, even when working with the living legend that is Nicole,” the 50-year-old director tells us. “One might imagine that such a big Hollywood star might be quite snobbish or might ask that their scenes be revised to their liking. All of these preconceived notions may originate from some urban myths. However, when I started working with her and everyone else in the movie it was not the case. They were willing to carry out my vision and in that sense I didn’t feel anything different from working with good actors in Korea.”
Longtime fans of Park’s work will recognize aspects of Stoker that trace across Park’s entire moviemaking career.
Immaculate set design (courtesy of Thérèse DePrez) brings to life the beautiful house shared by India Stoker (Wasikowska), an 18-year-old teen with straight brown hair and skin as white as a porcelain china doll, and her stff but elegant mother Evelyn (Kidman). India’s life changes when her father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a tragic car accident and her mysterious Uncle Charlie — Matthew Goode in a role inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt — moves in with the Stoker women. India suspects that her mysterious, charming uncle has ulterior motives but becomes increasingly inspired by him to showcase some unsettling skills of her own.
Other creative elements from the Park toolkit include sparse dialogue, mesmerizing editing and an operatic narrative thanks to stunning camerawork with his regular cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung.
Like ‘Lady Vengeance,’ ‘Stoker’ is also the story of a somber heroine with an ice-cold heart.
A pencil becomes deadly in India’s hands with one swipe across the screen and a droplet of blood on its lead tip. Similar to Oldboy, which has a forthcoming remake by Spike Lee with Josh Brolin in the lead role, Stoker offers a clear look at the conditions that push people to do unspeakable things
Park jokes when questioned about aspects of his creative work that remains the same whether he’s working in suburban Nashville or Seoul.
“Are you saying I’m redundant?” he asks between chuckles.
Still, on-screen, there are clear creative differences. Stoker claims more subtle visual metaphors than his bloodier Vengeance Trilogy. The ample resources of a Hollywood production means that composer Philip Glass provided two original piano duets for key scenes between India and Uncle Charlie.
For Park, coming to America also means the new experience of hands-on relationships with the film’s producers. While the South Korean veteran insists he did not battle over the final cut of the movie, he does admit that they were very specific about their ideas regarding the footage.
“I’m not saying there weren’t any arguments or that having to explain every thought behind every idea was an easy thing,” Park adds. I’m not saying that. But I appreciated those conversations with the studio as starting points to explore other options and lot of things in the movie were results of those conversations.”
Park also chuckles when asked if he always dreamed of coming to Hollywood and working with celebrities; a creative path for foreign directors going back to the industry’s early days with creative immigrants like Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg.
“Such a big question,” he teases. “I’m just one director who’s made all these nine movies.”
Although Park admits that he’s also a filmmaker with a very specific “signature.”
“My attitude towards making a film is where every element in the film has to be planned and must be placed deliberately with specific intentions and placed in a meticulous way,” he adds. ‘Every element about a film has to have meaning. Perhaps in its editing you might say it is similar to Hitchcock. This attitude towards filmmaking has always been consistent throughout all of my films.”
Still, Stoker is a new chapter for a world master who’s made successful shifts before, moving from the humanistic romance of his first hit, Joint Security Area to the brutal storytelling of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy and Lady Vengeance, tackling the vampire myth with Thirst, and now, Stoker, a Southern Gothic complete with a basement freezer holding unspeakable things and a leather belt and a sharpened pencil as deadly weapons.
Park’s arrival is perfectly times with what appears to be a South Korean invasion with Kim Jee-woon directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action movie The Last Stand and Bong Joon-ho, director of The Host, busy wrapping the upcoming Snowpiercer with Park as a producer on the film.
Now, thanks to Stoker, there are two creative communities for Park. He returns to Seoul for another South Korean movie and there
Park also admits that there are more Hollywood projects in the works, especially following the successful launch of Stoker, although he can’t confirm what’s next just yet.
For now, Park is enjoying the comforts that come with directing a Hollywood movie and the rare opportunity for a veteran artist like himself to gain a second chance at introducing himself and his work to hopefully a new community of fans.
“I want to draw the attention of these new filmgoers and show how I strive to break the boundaries of the genre and yet, stay very much within the spirit of the genre. I like to compare myself as a foreign agent infiltrating into the genre and like a virus change the genre," he says. "I hope this new community of filmgoers will disocver that about my work and as I make my next film I hope this new community of filmgoers will follow my work from now on and track my other work from before and see how I’ve been doing this with all of my movies.”