After beginning his film career with the indifferently received The Moon Is… The Sun’s Dream in 1992, Park Chan-wook became a household name in his native Korea thanks to the 2000 film Joint Security Area, a thriller that drew on the tension between North and South Korea. His international esteem grew with the release of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance in 2002, the first of a trilogy of films concerned with revenge. Its successors, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, mixed Hitchcock-inspired suspense with the moral implications of the grisly acts in which his characters engaged, often depicted with a disturbing graphicness. Park’s latest, Thirst, joins much of the plot of Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin to the story of a seemingly incorruptible priest who becomes a vampire after undergoing a dangerous medical experiment. While visiting the San Diego Comic Con, Park spoke to The A.V. Club about vampires, violence, and whether or not evil could be escaped.
The A.V. Club: Which came first, the idea to do a vampire film or the idea to do an adaptation of Therese Raquin?
Park Chan-wook: Before I knew about Therese Raquin, I knew about the vampires. But even before then, the story started when I was trying to do a film about Catholic priests.
AVC: You referenced a couple years ago about wanting to make a film about the devil and the existence of evil. Did Thirst come from that original idea?
PCW: Yes. And that’s why my English working title was Evil Live. If you flip the spelling of Evil Live, it becomes Evil Live. It’s the same whichever way you look at it. But in creating the story, filling out all the blanks in the story, I realized it wasn’t a story about that and accordingly changed the title to Thirst. In this story, scientists transfuse some blood, the origin of which is unknown. Where does this blood come from? Whose blood is it? Who placed this blood there so he gets transfused with this blood? So it may be the doings of the Devil, or it could be an act of God that scientists cannot imagine, or that we can never find out about. But even if it was blood of the devil or even if it was the devil’s doing, we never find out. It’s left blank. So you may say the original plan for the film to deal with this concept of the existence of evil, or the concept of the devil has completely changed, or you could almost say I have ended up with a film that is opposite to that.
AVC: The protagonist is someone who really wants to do good, yet ends up doing evil things. In the world of this film, is sin inevitable?
PCW: Yes, but not only in this film but for everybody in the real world, I think. It may not be a serious sin, something very small, but nevertheless in this day and age, in this web of relationships for every individual in their modern life, sin is inevitable. It is not possible for a person to be completely free of sin and be squeaky clean.
AVC: Is that part of what drew you to the story of Catholic priests before you had a vampire film you wanted to make?
PCW: Yes. You’re right. I wanted the starting point to be this very noble and very holy person. But in saying that, this person can’t be a perfect person, either. He’s gripped by constant doubts and gripped by the thought that he’s not really helpful to those people that he wants to help. All he can do is pray for them, which seems to be ineffectual. And he feels that his prayers are not really working well. So this causes him to constantly doubt himself, and this is kind of a strain on him. And second of all, although priests are cleaner compared with other people, this makes them more vulnerable when they are exposed to times of great struggle. Even though the state of becoming a vampire is not something that he wanted, he is forced into this state and starts to doubt his own faith. This is a priest who gave up everything—all his worldly desires and happiness—to live a life of faith. But for this person to be faced with a situation like this, to be forced into a situation like this, this would mean that he would begin to doubt his faith and doubt God even more than the average person would.
AVC: How familiar were you with vampire lore before you started to make this film?
PCW: I didn’t really set out to research vampire lore and I didn’t really go out of my way to look at all the different material. Probably only an average amount, I would imagine. Probably the last film I saw that dealt with vampirism in modern times was Interview With The Vampire. And I have read some Anne Rice novels. These probably comprise my familiarity with vampires. I haven’t had a chance yet to see Twilight or any of the more recent vampire films. And when I was asked the question of what my favorite vampire film was, in San Francisco, I said it was Martin, but having thought about it a little bit more, I would like to add one more to that. It’s the remake of Nosferatu made by [Werner] Herzog.
AVC: Do you have any theories as to why vampires are so popular at this particular time?
PCW: This is a question that every reporter asks me. I’ve never managed to give a good answer because I simply don’t know why vampire films are popular now. I haven’t seen True Blood. I haven’t seen Twilight. So if I try to give an answer, it will only sound pompous and silly.
AVC: You have a background is in philosophy and art criticism. How do you feel that background plays out in your films?
PCW: Well it is true that I went to study philosophy because I wanted to become an art critic, but I never managed to become an art critic. I became a film director, but I wasn’t successful with my first couple of films so I had to turn to becoming a film critic to make a living. So studying philosophy, to me, was a kind of training in having this attitude towards the act of thinking. And that means grabbing hold of an issue and not just touching it on a superficial level, and following a chain of logic until there is a conclusion at the end, until I come up against a wall. I’m not always successful in finding that conclusion, but I think this attitude is important.
AVC: Your films famously feature explicit violence. What does portraying violence explicitly allow you to say that portraying it more suggestively cannot?
PCW: First of all, I’d like to set something straight when it comes to being known for very graphic expressions of violence. My films are not as explicit as you might think. There is a misconception that people somehow seem to claim that they have seen the image where the main character cuts off his own tongue in Oldboy. Or they seem to remember seeing children go through the process of being killed on-screen in Lady Vengeance. Or they would say that they have seen the main character take the tooth out of one of the bad guys in Oldboy. But that is not true. They’re actually not seen on-screen. These are referred to, anticipated, and talked about, but not actually portrayed explicitly on film. So I feel a little bit put-upon when people say these things. But I’m not denying that there is vicious or graphic violence portrayed in this film, because they are still there. I just feel it’s somehow exaggerated when people talk about it. That’s all. I admit it’s there. The thing about it is the things I want to deal with in my films, in any case, is this violent relationship between individuals and this sense of wrongdoing, or this sense that this is a sin, and the process of redemption related to that. And because I’m dealing with this theme, it is unavoidable to portray some sort of violence in my films. It’s kind of like saying in a romance film it’s unavoidable to film a kissing scene. Or in an erotic film it is unavoidable to film a sex scene. Because these are what these films are trying to deal with.