South Korean director Park Chan-wook cuts an intriguing figure as he sits in Tartan’s London offices. Smartly dressed with the odd white strand amongst his perfectly coiffeured hair, it’s hard to imagine this softly spoken individual creating Oldboy’s infamous live octopus munching scene; much less that sections of the media ludicrously made his work a scapegoat for 2007’s Virginia Tech massacre.
Flanked by his interpreter, Park usually speaks calmly, almost inaudibly, opting to prioritise conceptual ideas over factual retelling. His interpreter speaks with a rich, traditional English accent and thus certainly earns her keep.
"Hope alone doesn’t give you anything"
After the visceral Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and the intense JSA: Joint Security Area, the very idea that Park could create a romantic comedy was almost otherworldly. Entitled I’m A Cyborg, the film’s production notes include a quote from Park that states, “I wanted to make a film that my daughter could watch and take my friends to see and laugh out loud.”
I’m A Cyborg is the story of Young-goon, a young woman admitted to a psychiatric unit convinced that she’s a cyborg. Given that cyborgs don’t eat regular food, neither does she and that has obvious implications for health. Fellow patient Il-soon believes that he has intangible powers and everyone else seems suitably convincing. His challenge is to get Young-goon to live on a human diet again. It’s beautifully done and occasionally very humorous, but a film for your daughter and your friends?
“I wanted to tell the story because it’s about abandoning hope but still trying,” he explains. “Many adults tell their children that if you hope for the best, then it’s all going to turn out ok and that’s a lie – hope alone doesn’t give you anything. That’s the truth of life. It’s a matter of survival and you have to live on and try.”
Theoretically, I’m A Cyborg seems an aeon apart from Park’s previous work. But the essence of his otherwise disparate filmmaking is the continuing theme of sympathy.
“I personally believe that understanding someone’s feelings and sharing their pain is the most important and human aspect. When I directed the film, I wanted to make a romantic comedy without the phrase, ‘I love you.’ I wanted to say, “I feel your pain and I’m there with you” as that’s more a realistic sentence.” Few words are immediately familiar to my ear, ignorant of the Korean language, but the English use of genre names is both welcomingly recognisable and depressingly global. “The most important scene in the film is where she’s killing everybody with bullets coming out of her fingers. Obviously that’s her own imagination, but when he enters her imagination and he witnesses what she’s thinking, it’s the most important part of the film because he’s showing sympathy, he’s feeling the terror of her situation.”
Given Park’s cinematic history, it feels odd that I’m A Cyborg appears not to address societal issues in a wider sense beyond the confines of the story.
“It’s not specifically supposed to criticise any part of society, it’s more intended to be like a fairy tale. Obviously it’s not intended to be without substance either!” His interpreter laughs as Park offers a beaming smile. “I wanted to concentrate on the troubles of adolescence, the problems that young people go through, as well as sympathy. It’s not a criticism of Korean society or any society for that matter.”
"I wanted to make a romantic comedy without the phrase, ‘I love you.’"
Il-soon is played by Jung Ji-hoon, otherwise known as Korea’s leading pop star Rain. Given that his profile on these shores is limited, I ask for a comparison that might help to gauge his level of fame.
“Imagine Michael Jackson at the top of his game! He’s massive superstar throughout Asia. For his world tour, Korean Air repainted the side of his plane with his face, that’s how ridiculously famous he is. He’s a super superstar.”
Named by leading American publications as one of the world’s most influential and beautiful people, Rain’s casting was a suitably glamorous affair.
“I went to a film award ceremony in Korea that Rain sang at. He had the idea that performing in front of so many directors would give him a chance of being cast in a film. I looked around and the room was full of beautiful actresses and even they were amazed by him, watching with their mouths open!” Park doesn’t do incredulous, but this is a close second. “I realised that if I cast him, I wouldn’t have any problems casting the female role.”
I’m A Cyborg proved to be a wonderful opportunity for Rain, who was subsequently been cast in the Wachowski Brothers’ live action adaptation of Japanese anime Speed Racer that’s due out next month.
Park, meanwhile, is happy to continue to keep his options open. “I’d like to keep my freedom to move between the light and dark genres,” he says simple. “At the moment, I’ve gone back to my dark world that I’m known for with a film about vampires.” Said to be his darkest work to date, the film has the provisional English title of Evil Live. A Park Chan-wook film about vampires? Sounds too good to be true…