The following LKFF2014 group interview took place at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on November 12th 2014, prior to the London Korean Film Festival 'In Conversation with Park Chan-kyong' talk/discussion:
Hangul Celluloid: I believe that for your documentary/biopic ‘Manshin’ - which was screened here at the London Korean Film Festival a couple of days ago - as well as both directing and writing the screenplay you also invested fairly heavily in the film financially to ensure it could be made. That being the case and considering how different the situation was from the commissioned shorts you made with your brother [Park Chan-wook], how difficult was it to secure the full funding needed to make ‘Manshin’ and what are your thoughts on the hold that large conglomerates have on the film industry in Korea and their focus on larger blockbusters, some would say at the expense of smaller independents?
Park Chan-kyong: From the very beginning, ‘Manshin’ went through the film-making process in the manner of an independent film so there was no complete picture to the issue of funding which would of course have been the case if the film had been a backed production. So, as I began to make the film I actually created, I think, three short films because I could show those shorts much more easily to interested parties. I feel that method enabled funding bodies and the like feel more confident about the production as a whole. I was also, as you probably know, working as an artist so I was able to secure some funding from my gallery’s private funders but all in all it was probably the most complex funding system I’ve developed… maybe the most complex in Korea… or in history [Park Chan-kyong laughs]. When you watch the film, you’ll see an absolutely crazy list of different logos at the end relating to those who funded the project. It was so difficult to secure enough financial backing that I spent three years doing it and as you said it’s very different from films backed by big companies or the films I made with my brother. Those PARKing CHANce [the company formed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong) shorts were specifically funded so from the outset we know exactly how much we had to spend in total. I’m actually asking myself the question of whether I’d chose to approach such a difficult funding process again and I don’t know if I would, but there again such a move does give you great creative freedom to do exactly as you want so there is a positive side to it, too.
In response to your second point, certainly it’s not easy to get big companies interested in a project, but if you compare the situation in the Korean film industry with other Asian countries Korea still has some money – you know, public funds and city funds – to spend and there are so many film festivals too that the situation isn’t hopeless and though it does have to be said that the big companies don’t care at all about the films they release aside from potential profit, I honestly believe there’s still some space to develop original films. I actually think film-makers need to develop more creative works and that in itself will create anther, bigger space for their films. The big companies like CJ and Showbox are ultimately interested in finding new actors and directors so though people complain about the hardships they have to go through to make their films it’s perhaps not as bad as they make out. They just need to try hard.
Mini Mini Movie: Obviously with your work in art, photography etc, ‘Manshin’ opens with the main character, Kim Keum-hwa, talking with lots of art positioned behind her. Also, the title sequence is very striking and I read in the credits that Lee Jeon-hyung is responsible for the visual effects. Was he involved with those segments or were you responsible for the artistic parts of the film?
Park Chan-kyong: Lee Jeon-hyung’s company is actually one of the biggest special effects companies in Korea and since he has worked a lot with my brother I was able to ask him for a big discount in his charges [Park Chan-kyong laughs]. Not only that, but he really is the best and he is really smart. Usually in Korea, special effects teams just follow orders but Lee Jeon-hyung always gives his opinions on what will work best in a particular situation. As such, the whole visual creation process was really fun and while it’s sometimes hard when making a film to ask for changes again and again, Lee Jeon-hyung always takes the need for alterations well. He is extremely professional. When I asked him to make a part of the film in a particular way he always suggested two extra options so I was able to choose and find what really would work best.
Hangul Celluloid: The subjects you cover in your films, whether it’s your short films made with your brother or your feature films, you have a real focus on either shamanism or traditionalism, featuring pansori etc. Why do these subjects appeal so much to you and considering the fact that in a Q&A last night you discussed your catholic upbringing and Park Chan-wook’s overt references to catholic themes and imagery in his films while you [and I quote] “repeatedly dreamt of traditional temples”, did you have to convince Park Chan-wook to focus on traditionalism and shamanism rather than Christianity in, for example, ‘Night Fishing’ and ‘A Day Trip’?
Park Chan-kyong: If you look at ‘Thirst’, for example, while the catholic themes are undeniable, if you look at the oldest character she is seen more than once wearing an hanbok, traditional Korean dress, and I thought that visual reference was very similar to what I was working on in my own films; I guess what I call Asian gothic – it’s very gothic but specifically Korean style gothic – and I remember in our school days my brother listened to a lot of traditional music. He was also really interested in classic films depicting the Joseon era/background so I guess it’s not that he wasn’t interested it’s just that he had other things he wanted to say. So, I never had to persuade him, I simply suggested that it might be interesting to do and he easily took the idea on board. He’s of course knows about my work too and he has said to me that he always has somewhat of a burden when making his own films in relation to the need to make money and the need for his films to be successful because he as big investors there, and I guess the PARKing CHANce films give him an opportunity to step away from that pressure. But you know, having said that, with his films he really is rather free at the end of the day, too; whatever he wants to do he pretty much can. In relation to your question of way traditionalism interests me so much, maybe I can tell you about one of my own experiences in the past: In the late 90s, I was really sick, both physically ill and kind of sick in my mind. It felt like there was something wrong with my brain and I was constantly having dreams about a mountain I had seen about ten years before. That mountain area really is the Mecca or hotbed for shamanism in Korea and I began to feel that I really wanted to go there in person. So I did, and I found a lot of traces of the Joseon era and a lot of the people living there really believed in a kind of utopia. I found that really, really interesting and not only did it centre me but I actually felt I was really meant to have gone there. I guess that where the focus in my films on tradition comes from.
Mini Mini Movie: Regarding shamanism and pansori, actress Moon So-ri stars in ‘Manshin’ playing Kim Keum-hwa in middle-age and I believe she is very passionate about pansori and even performs it herself, in real life. Was that one of the reasons you chose her for the film and why she said yes? Had her passion for pansori been discussed prior to her taking the role?
Park Chan-kyong: You know, I’ll tell you a secret story about Moon So-ri: We actually first contacted Moon So-ri when we were preparing to make ‘Night Fishing’ for her to star as the main female shaman character and she actually started to make the film with us; doing all the rehearsals, wrestling in the mud etc. However, because of the really hard rehearsals, she began to worry about her health and her condition caused her to think she might be pregnant. She asked a doctor and she found out she was indeed pregnant and the very day we were about to start shooting she called us and said “I’m pregnant, I can’t do the film”. So, that’s why we chose Lee Jung-hyun for the ‘Night Fishing’ role – the very same day, in fact – and when I came to make ‘Manshin’ I said to Moon So-ri “Now is your chance to use your pansori in a role” [Park Chan-kyong laughs]. Moon So-ri knows a lot about shamanism too. I mean, for actors and actresses of her generation they usually practice pansori and learn how to dance as they learn and improve their craft.
Hangul Celluloid: If I could talk about one specific visual relating to ‘Night Fishing’ and ‘Manshin’: At the start of ‘Night Fishing’, after the introduction music performance by the band ‘Uh-Uh-Boo Project’, there is a visual of a traditional shaman hat floating through the air accompanied by music and in the final stages of ‘Manshin’ exactly the same imagery is used – again while a ban plays and sings – the only real difference being the colour of the head garment. Could you talk a little bit about the symbolism you were trying to convey with the scene and why you felt the imagery was strong enough to feature in both films?
Park Chan-kyong: When we were making ‘Night Fishing’, I thought a lot about the fantasy aspects and scenes but I really couldn’t get a real and firm idea about these elements until the day of shooting the first scene. When we went to the field to film the first scene, my brother arrived late and in the two hours while we waited for him I created that scene simply because I thought it would be fun to do and it would put in the time until he arrived. So, we did and when my brother arrived he thought it was great. When I began to make ‘Manshin’ I kept thinking “Should I do it again with a different coloured hat?”- it was almost like the scene was calling to me - and since the song it accompanies in ‘Manshin’ calls for the opening spirit, the god of the ocean, to come, I felt the imagery was almost like that spirit arriving. Kim Keum-hwa actually said that she really liked the scene, too.
Mini Mini Movie: Again in relation to ‘Night Fishing’, the lighting is superb with the night shoots and scenes involving water and I wondered how that differs from your traditional film camera work?
Park Chan-kyong: While we used iPhones to film ‘Night Fishing’, everything else was pretty big, production-wise. So we had this big crane lighting system - in fact it was the first time I had seen crane lighting - and it was, honestly, absolutely huge. So, the lighting technician tended to complain about the fact that the iPhone cameras were so small while the lighting rig was so big [Park Chan-kyong laughs]. The good thing about using the iPhone was we could use five at the same time but there was an article published in Choson Ilbo saying that ‘Night Fishing’ wasn’t really an iPhone film because everything except the camera was light a big production and similarly expensive but we took a lot of time working with the iPhone technology, finding the right applications for it etc, and I think the film has a symbolic importance showing that anyone has the technology to go and create a film. This is the age where film-making has become a democracy, for and made by the people.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve now made a number of short films with Park Chan-wook and two feature films on your own. From my personal point of view, I have seen some incredible, superb short films of late and even established directors such as you, your brother and director Kim Jee-woon continue to make shorts in tandem with or in between features. How important do you feel short films are to the Korean film industry, both to new directors and established film-makers?
Park Chan-kyong: I think short films are equally important to feature films. I can’t say what my brother’s thoughts are on the subject but he has stated many times that you can feel really free while making shorts or experimental films and I wholeheartedly agree with that. They allow a film-maker to develop ideas, as well. I feel there should be no hierarchy in film-making and those who think shorts are less important than full-length films are wrong, in my opinion. The thing is, there is a tendency for film-makers to begin with short films as almost a ladder to making commercial features but I don’t think that tendency is good because it reintroduces the hierarchy I mentioned. Shorts have very different aesthetics to features and I think should be viewed as separate entities. I even think there should be more short film festivals to highlight their importance and I personally watch a large number of shorts, a huge number in fact. I started my career making a short film that was shown at a short film festival. Short films are also important to me because much of my visual art work consists of short films and filmed segments.
Mini Mini Movie: You’ve mentioned the band ‘Uh-Uh-Boo Project’ who appeared in ‘Night Fishing’ and ‘Manshin’ features the group ‘Be-Being’. Both of those groups have performed in London but I wondered how you choose the music for your films? The music you use always seems to fit the mood and I wondered if you or Park Chan-wook’s choices were because of acquaintances or just because of the music?
Park Chan-kyong: The music my brother used for ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ was by ‘Uh-Uh-Boo Project’ and we knew them for a long time because of the art circle/circuit – we saw them at art openings, exhibitions etc – and it’s hard to define their music because they use a lot of traditional instruments and they listen to a lot of Asian music within a contemporary setting. They also create really strange sounds the traditional musicians never do. Their output is so eclectic – sometimes spooky and haunting… kind of like soju [Park Chan-kyong laughs] – that it seems to be rootless and I like that.
Hangul Celluloid: If I could step back to your first feature film, ‘Anyang: Paradise City’: The film essentially covers a documentary being made – you even act in the film – and it does twist between disasters that have happened in Korea’s recent history and, again, traditionalism and Buddhism. Your short ‘Bitter, Sweet, Seoul’ almost does a similar thing in juxtaposing modern day Korea with tradition and history. What was this contrast saying about Korea past and present, from your point of view?
Park Chan-kyong: It’s like the modern day love of Bibimbap, a real mix of the old appearing in the new [Park Chan-kyong laughs]. If you look at Korean history, Korea is a very old country but it was completely destroyed both physically and mentally during wartime and an entirely new country was almost built from scratch from the 50s onwards. So, you have very strong traditions but they have been greatly suppressed in the modern day. You find traditional Korean culture as uncanny because you have something really old that you should be familiar with but you’re not. I guess it’s almost a double meaning as a result – the old stuff is new – and this double sensibility is a really interesting aesthetic in film and art. That’s even why my brother had this contrast in ‘Thirst’; this twist of Asian gothic that can be beautiful and grotesque all at the same time. I don’t know if that makes sense but I hope people understand. It’s the same thing if you go to a Buddhist temple at night – it’s scary but beautiful at the same time.
Mini Mini Movie: With regard to the PARKing CHANce films, you said in a Q&A last night that when you edit, you will sometimes do the daytime while your brother does the night-time. Does the same thing happen when you are directing? Does one of you have more control over one area while the other concentrates on a different part, such as the colours or the angles?
Park Chan-kyong: In the film-making process, we have a long period of pre-production so we discuss these issues a lot beforehand. In the field, we don’t tend to find that many differences because we have already decided, really. Of course, there will be differing views on how the parts are acted or specific angles filmed etc but usually we come to the same conclusion anyway because we both know what the better choice is. My brother has far more experience so usually he makes better choices; I’ve only been making films for around five years. So my brother has been I the industry twice as long. When filming, time really is of the essence and my brother is able to make decisions about changes that need to be made very quickly.
Hangul Celluloid: You’ve already said that your brother has more film-making experience than you but you’ve also said your other artistic endeavours involve a lot of shirt films. Which is more important to you? Would you ultimately describe yourself as a film-maker, an artist or an artist who makes films?
Park Chan-kyong: I want to be an artist with access to a commercial film budget and I want to be a film-maker with the freedom of an artist. I just want the best of both worlds [Park Chan-kyong laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: How close are you to achieving that goal?
Park Chan-kyong: I’m getting closer but I always want more. Film-making costs a lot of money and if you want to make commercial films you have to sacrifice a certain amount of freedom. Not only in terms of the film-making itself but in relation to the production as a whole you have access to the input of the distribution company, actors and actresses, the composer, the camera man etc so it can result in great artistic co-operation but these very things can also add pressures. When you create artistic work on your own in a studio, you are free of those pressures but you also have to work alone but then again you can do whatever you want to without issue. The next step I want to make is to make a commercial film but I need to adjust myself to that. I have a script in progress but I need to cut and edit the scenario before going any further. My brother did promise to produce it but he’s currently too busy making his latest film.
Mini Mini Movie: In ‘Manshin’ there is a merging of the various incarnations of the main character, the girl and the woman, in one scene towards the end of the film where they all appear together. Was that your intention from the outset?
Park Chan-kyong: I had to do it because if I had only interviews about Kim Keum-hwa’s past the film would have been very boring. Making a film, I have all these interesting aspects that I can reference so why not do it as a re-enactment? I can kind of create mise-en-scene and so forth. I made the decision about that scene from the outset because I wanted the audience to be able to see the character, the real person, and the actress at the same time so I made it sometimes overtly artificial to achieve my needs.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK and the London Korean Film Festival for allowing both Hangul Celluloid and Mini Mini Movie to interview director Park at such length.