Park Chan-wook interview: Stoker, Oldboy and wallpaper

We were lucky enough to meet Korea’s eminent filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, to discuss his English-language debut, Stoker...

It’s an unseasonably warm day in February, and I’m sitting opposite Park Chan-wook in a London hotel. Over a career spanning more than a decade, Chan-wook – or Director Park, as he prefers to be addressed – has steadily built up a reputation as Korea’s most eminent filmmaker. From Join Security Area via the Vengeance trilogy to Thirst and now Stoker, his English-language debut, Park’s movies have an obsessive, febrile quality, like a dream or a horrifying fairytale.

How fitting then, that my interview with him should feel like a feverish hallucination. There’s a bright, angle-poise lamp positioned on the table between us, next to which sit half-full cups of coffee and nibbled biscuits. Director Park’s interpreter sits to my right, dutifully taking down shorthand notes from the filmmaker’s responses, and relaying those to me in English.

The lamp is so bright that it partly obscures the director’s face, while a television, flickers in the background. And as I observe the weirdly-patterned wallpaper and the fussily upholstered chairs, I begin to feel as though I’m in one of Park’s films; maybe this is why, of the handful of questions I have time to ask the Korean auteur, one about the patterns and the obsessive quality of his films – expressed in tiny yet distinct visual flourishes like the spiders’ web wallpaper in Oh Dae-su’s cell in Oldboy, to Uncle Charlie’s tank top in Stoker – is one that springs to mind.

Park exudes a cerebral, philosophical air – appropriate given that he studied philosophy before he began a career as a film critic and then filmmaker – and positively hums with quiet, faintly sardonic restrained energy. As the conversation drifts around the table, back and forth between me, the interpreter, to him and back, I barely notice that, for some reason, he’s holding a camera – a handsome-looking old-fashioned sort, with black leather-look casing and an expensive-looking lens.

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Alas, I never did have time to find out why he was holding the camera, and whether he planned to take pictures of the better-looking journalists that paraded before him that day – needless to say, he never took a photo of me – but he did talk entertainingly about his new film, Stoker, his typically stylish fusion of family drama, Hitchcockian thriller and gothic horror.

Congratulations on Stoker, first of all. The film has a real American gothic atmosphere, yet many of the cast and crew are from outside of America. Do you think that outsider perspective was important?

Well, not particularly. He [Director Park] doesn’t really subscribe to the approach where someone says, “I will observe America through an outsider’s perspective. It wasn’t the case. It is an American story, but he didn’t feel the need to do a very realistic depiction of where the story takes place; it’s not that movie.

The movie he wanted to make has a universal story. It’s a fairytale. And a fairytale travels all over the world, and crosses borders. In much the same way, [Stoker] is a fairytale, a universal story. And because of that, he didn’t feel the need to depict it in a very realistic way, and that’s why it’s populated these elements – not because he approached it from an outside perspective looking in. 

It’s a detailed film, as your films always are. How did the shoot affect that, as I understand you didn’t have a huge amount of time to shoot it in.

It was 40 days of shooting, but even then, he didn’t feel it was ample time with which to shoot the film. Although people did tell him that, in America, for a story this size, it’s about the right number of shoot days. Of course, back in Korea, he would have many more days to shoot with. Did he have ample time in pre-production? He doesn’t really think so. And because of that shorter production period, it meant that everything had to happen very fast, and that preparation was very hectic.

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Yet, maybe because he was in Nashville, away from his family, he worked to infuse detail into the story – evenings, weekends, he would just work and work away at the film. Maybe it’s because of that.

One of the things I loved about the film, and something I’ve noticed in your other films as well, particularly Oldboy, is a use of patterns. It’s probably a minor thing to pick up on, but in Oldboy, there was the wallpaper, which provides a claustrophobic mood, and in Stoker, there’s India’s bedspread, and Uncle Charlie’s tank top. I was wondering if there was an underlying thinking behind details like that.

Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish. How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.

It’s the same thing for a filmmaker. Not one thing that you see or hear in the film is there randomly. Everything is designed, everything is intended, everything is there to perform a function. So when it comes to these patterns, a filmmaker simply cannot choose to have it there simply because it’s pretty. 

But could you give me an idea of their underlying meaning, in these instances?

What sort of function do these patterns serve? They could have an underlying meaning, as you say, but it could also be to evoke an emotion. So it if it functions in any of these ways, it deserves to be there. In the case of Stoker, an example would be, the linear patterns on the wallpaper and the curtains in the dining room, is to convey the idea that this is like a prison, for instance.

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And the wallpapers in India’s room, for instance, speaks to her character. She likes things to be in order. She likes things to be in symmetry. 

You talked about music, just then, and perhaps the scene where India and Uncle Charlie play the piano – a beautiful set-piece all on its own. How much did you bring to that, how much was on the page, and how did Philip Glass’s music inform the scene?

If his memory serves, the script prescribed piano music a la Erik Satie. Erik Satie is great, but in terms of trying to speak to the characteristics of India and Charlie, he was really thinking about what would be the best music, and of course it was Philip Glass. And through signature repetitions in his music, but with variation in each repetition. He thought he could speak to these characters in minimalistic music – he thought minimalistic music would be best for this scene.

The music itself is a condensed drama, which is a study of the whole romantic process of a girl meets a boy, they fall in love, they have sex, and they fall out. If you take a look at this scene carefully again, you’ll see what he means about the piece of music, and the scene is a study of that.

Philip Glass, when he came onboard, provided the decisive clue as to how this scene was ultimately visualised. He talked about how he wrote a four-hand piece once, and that it would be played by a couple. They came to Philip Glass one day, and said, “This is what we did with your music. Did you realise you could do this? [Mimes putting an arm around the waist of a person sitting next to him] Where the man puts his arm around the woman. So that immediately made changes to the script.

Park Chan-wook, thank you very much.

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Stoker is out in UK cinemas on the 1st March – you can read our review here.

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