The seminal South Korean director Park Chan-wook—best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy,” and in particular, its middle chapter, Oldboy—received an tribute Wednesday night at the Marrakech International Film Festival, where I am lucky enough to be in attendance.
Park is currently working on The Handmaid, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s lesbian crime novel Fingersmith set in Japanese-occupied South Korea, but before his breakthrough with the 2000 movie Joint Security Area, he made a living principally as a film critic, becoming quite popular and well-known in South Korea. (His criticism, alas, has yet to be translated into English.) When, in an interview with a handful of other journalists, I asked him how he had approached being a critic, his answer was, essentially, that he accentuated the positive—though for two disparate reasons.
The first was temperamental: “I never really criticized any films,” Park said, speaking through a translator. “I thought the time spent writing on films that I didn’t like was time wasted. So I would only write about films that I liked … and I analyzed why they were such good films.” The comment was particularly interesting in light of what Park had said at a “Master Class” on filmmaking the day before, when he’d offered young filmmakers the advice, “maybe you got a bad review. But at least you got a review…. You’re still sparking conversation.” Taking together, the evident subtext was: If it had been up to me, you might not have been reviewed at all.
Park said he took particular pleasure in championing films that were otherwise much-maligned. As an example, he cited the critically reviled The Exorcist 2 (Rotten Tomatoes score: 22 percent): “When everyone was trashing [it], I was trying to make people see the true value in it.”
Park’s second rationale for focusing on movies he liked was, as he described it, forthrightly careerist: “Truth be told, even though I was working as a film critic, I was still intent on being a filmmaker. I wanted to someday get a project financed. So I didn’t want to upset any producers or importers or distributors by writing a bad review of one of their films.” One has to admire his candor, however retrospective.
With filmmakers, though, it isn’t just reviewers who critique their work. I also asked Park about his first English-language film, Stoker, which bore many of the earmarks of his earlier work, although the tone was relatively subdued. Word had emerged of behind-the-scenes disagreements between Park and the studio, Fox Searchlight. “It’s a very complex issue,” he said. “It is true that when I made my first cut, I was completely satisfied and thought this was the best way to cut the film. But then I started getting notes from the studio, and I was taken aback by those notes.”
Over time, however, his attitude softened. “Of course going through the arguments was painful. It was something that was not familiar to me. But having engaged in those heated arguments made me think more about the film.” In the end, he arrived at a third option: neither his initial take nor the studio’s preferred outcome, but a “new solution.” In the end, he said, he was very pleased with the final product, and “the process has certainly made me stronger.”
The feedback he was getting, he realized, was “me getting a preview of what my future audience”—by which he seemed to mean the American viewing public—“will be saying. And it allowed me to approach it with a different attitude.”
There are two ways of viewing this newfound embrace of conciliation. As a longtime magazine editor, I’m intimately familiar with the collaborative dance of author and editor, the often lengthy process of working and reworking a piece to make it the best that it can be. As a longtime fan of Park Chan-wook, however, I was mildly disappointed with Stoker. Though I enjoyed the film overall (my review is here), it seemed a little too domesticated, somewhat lacking in Park’s trademark ferocity, both physical and—more importantly—emotional. I’m not sure that I want his work to be edited to conform to the taste of his “future audience” or its studio proxies. Though it doesn’t yet have a release date, The Handmaid—rumors suggest that it may premiere at Cannes next year—will give us a better sense of what the next phase of Park’s career will hold.