The following group interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK in London, on May 30th 2014, prior to a special screening of 'Stoker' and Q&A with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon:
Hangul Celluloid: Cinematically, Park Chan-wook’s films could be said to have almost an inherent beauty but of all his work the films on which you were cinematographer are in my opinion the most visually stunning of all; with ‘Thirst’ especially appearing as a visual work of art. How much of the beautiful imagery and cinematography in those films was the result of the putting into practice of your ideas and how much was Park Chan-wook’s ideas being followed?
Chung Chung-hoon: I believe that if a cinematographer has an idea then it’s the director and his/her capacity to accept that which ultimately makes both a good director and a great collaboration. A film is created by so many individuals working together and it’s ultimately the director’s choice whether or not to use specific ideas. I’ve worked with a lot of different film directors but Park Chan-wook is one of the directors who have readily accepted a lot of my ideas. I am really grateful for your comment about my work being beautiful but from my perspective it really is director Park’s choosing of specific styles that ultimately made the films what they are. So, I think that credit should really go to Park Chan-wook.
easternKicks: Picking up on Hangul Celluloid’s first question, you’ve very much become Park Chan-wook’s right-hand-man on his productions ever since you worked together on ‘Oldboy’. I wonder if you could tell us how the two of you began to work together?
Chung Chung-hoon: I’ve been a fan of director Park ever since his debut film and, before I broke into the film industry with ‘Oldboy’, I was attempting to enter cinema by working as cinematographer on another film but when that project was about 50% complete budget issues brought it to a halt. As a result, I had a few months where I was doing nothing and while watching ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ I happened to say to a friend that I’d really to like to work with director Park. After my friend went home I went to bed and the very next morning at about 9am I got a phone call from Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’ production team. Of course, I thought it was someone making a prank call so I said “Go f*ck yourself!” [Chung Chung-hoon laughs] but less than an hour later I got another call from Park Chan-wook himself. To cut a long story short, he gave me the job of cinematographer on ‘Oldboy’ without him ever having seen any of my work so I asked him why and he said firstly I am younger than him – at that time most Korean DPs were rather old – and secondly he really trusted his editor and his editor (who had seen my work and whom I knew) had recommended me. After ‘Oldboy’, Park Chan-wook finally saw my earlier movie and said “What on earth was that?”… He hated it and perhaps if he had seen that film before he spoke to me he would never have employed me.
MiniMiniMovies: What percentage of your work is undertaken on set and how much is in post-production. The reason I ask is that the film ‘Antarctic Journal’ has very vivid colours and I wondered how much of that was as a result of colour grading and how much was achieved on set?
Chung Chung-hoon: Colour grading doesn’t take place at all on set. I like to stick to the basics and director Park is very aware of colour co-ordination; brightness and darkness, and so on. So, because Park Chan-wook doesn’t like having totally dark areas, as his cinematographer I placed little lights in various places so details within dark areas, such as eyes etc, could be seen. There are colours that we want that we can’t specifically create in the post-production stage and because I like to give freedom to directors in the editing stages – because colours can come out differently – I, as I said, tend to stick to the basics so that in post-production we can give the director the colours that he wants. However, contrast is controlled mainly on set.
Korea.net: You have worked on productions in both Korea and the US. Apart from the film schedules, what were the main differences you found in the two industries?
Chung Chung-hoon: Working in the US and seeing the importance placed on speedy creation made me understand why the American film industry is described as a factory. Whereas, in Korea the end result is what matters; if the film is really good then you’re seen as a good director. How quickly a production is completed isn’t anywhere nearly as important. In the US there are a lot of good directors but they say there are few who can work within a set required period of time, and they believe that speed of completion makes a good director, in itself. That was the hardest thing to come to terms with in the beginning but it does have to be said that the passion of film-makers is the same in both countries. The possibility of being fired from a production is also far higher in the US and in fact after ‘Stoker’ I was fired from a US production; the director preferred things to look cinematically like ‘Titanic’.
Ian Rudd: Obviously, locations are important to any production. What input do you usually have on these and do you ultimately have any say in the choice of locations?
Chung Chung-hoon: I’m working on a film in the US at the moment that is at the pre-production stage and I want to work with the director on every aspect from the very beginning but I feel I know very little about technical things – almost every day a new camera or piece of technology comes out – so as I feel there are a lot of great DPS out there and that I lack somewhat in the technical areas I very much prefer to deal with things that many pay little attention to; the drama of a film and the characters. I worked as a child actor in my youth so I feel that gives me an insight into how everything works from a character point of view. It’s the same when it comes to location; for example in ‘Stoker’ a main location is the house and I focused on how the characters inhabit it.
SumGyeoJin Gem: You worked with Park Chan-wook on ‘I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK’ which used a lot of CGI technology in its creation. How does that type of technology help you in the creative process of film-making and where do you see the future of technology supporting film creation In the Korean cinema industry heading?
Chung Chung-hoon: Ironically, when I work with Park Chan-wook, director Park, myself and the effects supervisor have a meeting to try to avoid using effects as much as possible. I like to approach things from an analogue point of view and I’m one of those people who believe that robots aid us at the moment but will eventually disturb us [Chung Chung-hoon laughs]. I think the development of technology should only be to give more freedom to a director and I guess that there really shouldn’t be a definitive answer to that question. These days, film productions are increasingly switching over to HD but I want film to remain; HD cameras to stay and the iPhone and video cameras to continue to be used; etc. etc. so that film-makers can decide which medium suits their specific needs, with all the technologies co-existing.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve already said that you work as much as you can from the perspective of characters and that the drama contained within a film is very important to you. In a very general sense, which would you say is more difficult: Working in an expansive, harsh and less drama-focused environment as was the case in ‘Antarctic Journal’; creating tactile love scenes such as those in ‘Thirst’, which are sumptuous, sensual and almost touchable; or creating beauty within violence?
Chung Chung-hoon: That is a truly difficult question. ‘Antarctic Journal’ was by far the most difficult for me, almost in spite of the harsh setting, because as you’ve said I really wasn’t drawn into the drama of the story and if I had a chance to remake the film now, I would be able to at least try to bring more drama into it, and I also think that the set being too cold also affected the drama. As far as ‘Thirst’ was concerned, the sumptuous nature of those visuals was far easier because at the end of the day the subject is something that absolutely everyone can relate to: ‘Thirst’, to my mind, is a story of love, a story of life in general and of people judging and misjudging others but because it’s a film they made the characters vampires. However, vampires or not, the story is our story – a human story – and so I found it must easier to work on with the director. The reason I keep mentioning the drama of a piece is because only by understanding the characters and what they go through can I provide and capture all the movement I want and need to capture. For example, in ‘Oldboy’ I saw the overall movement as the chasing of the characters and as such there is a lot of long and zoom lens work, shots taken from behind and less handheld camerawork, more fluid I guess I would say. I believe if I understand the characters I can accurately build up relevant, sympathetic scenes within whatever overall genre is required.
easternKicks: Where do you get the inspiration for your work? Is it from other cinematographers, artists, photographers and is it specific to the subject of the film?
Chung Chung-hoon: In terms of inspiration, I look at many photographs and also other directors’ pictures, and I even look at all the ‘wrong’ films from a particular genre so I can think “I won’t film it in that kind of way”. With director Park, we often show each other various images and in fact he is still constantly sending me pictures. Of course, when I’m in the US there is a time difference so I’m constantly getting images in the middle of the night. In fact, let me show you an example [Chung Chung-hoon takes out his phone and scrolls through emails to find an example, holding his phone to show an image on screen]. See? There is not text or explanation at all, just a photo. I mean, what is that? [Chung Chung-hoon holds up the phone image again and laughs]. Also, director Park keeps sending files that are really huge and even though I have asked him to make them smaller he doesn’t listen. All joking aside, it does allow me to know what the director is thinking and how he is working on a script. In short, that is my inspiration.
SumGyeoJin Gem: What are your future plans while you are in the US? You’ve already worked on the film ‘Boulevard’ since ‘Stoker’ but what are your plans beyond that?
Chung Chung-hoon: Yes, the film ‘Boulevard’ will be released soon and for my next film I’ll be working with the director who made ‘American Horror Story’, but it is not a horror genre film. Rather it is a high school comedy.
Hangul Celluloid: Is that somewhat of a genre departure for you?
Chung Chung-hoon: I did work on high school comedy ‘Dasepo Naught Girls’ though this film will be a lot different and I hope and think it will be good enough to feature at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be produced by Indian Paint Brush who invested in ‘Stoker’, so I’m very excited.
[As the interview ended, Chung Chung-hoon ran over to his laptop, pulled out a tablet and began scrolling through the storyboards for ‘Stoker’] This is kind of the way I work with director Park, these are the entire storyboards [Chung Chung-hoon scrolls through with a little technical help from SumGyeoJin Gem] They are not as detailed from the beginning as many Korean films because the speed required by Hollywood negates that but in the case of ‘Oldboy’ the storyboards formed an entire book. In filming, the entire storyboard is not used, they change about 40% but if there was no storyboard then you couldn’t really change anything. I showed you this because I really didn’t have anything else worthwhile to say [Chung Chung-hoon laughs]. Thank you all very much, I wish we could all talk at length over Korean BBQ.
On behalf of everyone involved, I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for allowing us all to interview cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon at such length.