Chill to the thrill

South Korean director Park Chan Wook rejected many English scripts before choosing to make his Hollywood debut with the thriller Stoker

Meeting South Korean director Park Chan Wook is a little like watching his movies. You may not always be certain what he is getting at, but he sure gives you fine visual details to look at.

In his first Hollywood film, Stoker, a Gothic coming-of-age chiller starring Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman, there is a mysterious image of a spider dancing up a girl’s legs, for instance, which you might neither fathom nor forget. In person, as he speaks serenely through his producer and interpreter Jeong Won Jo and studiously avoids eye contact, you may find yourself transfixed by his striking dark blue tie, which is knotted loosely at his collar and covered in embossed dots. It reminds you of... bubble wrap.

Park, who won Cannes glory (the Grand Prix or second prize) and international fame in 2004 with Oldboy, a stomach-turning story of revenge, is one of the first few important Korean directors to be making an English-language debut this year.

Kim Ji Woon made the 2003 horror hit A Tale Of Two Sisters and has directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in his action comeback The Last Stand. Bong Joon Ho made The Host, a 2006 monster movie and box-office smash, and is finishing Snowpiercer, a sci-fi film starring Chris Evans.

But ask Park about the Korean Wave landing in Hollywood and what it means, and he declines to be drawn into generalisations. “Each director would have his own reasons for going to Hollywood,” Park, 49, says in an interview at Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel.

The director, who is also producing Snowpiercer, adds: “I know the ins and outs of Snowpiercer and Stoker. I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that it’s a coincidence.”

Speaking for himself, however, he admits he hopes to “go back and forth between America and Korea” henceforth, although he declines to discuss unconfirmed, upcoming projects.

Stoker, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is on arthouse release in the United States. It opened on seven screens there last week with a respectable US$158,800 (S$197,600) and will expand to more cinemas this week. Oldboy, remade by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin, is scheduled for release there in October.

Out of the three directors, Park has the most recognisable name and identifiable style – extreme violence, baroque art direction and intense colours – which may translate the best to Hollywood. The director, who is married with a teenage daughter, is a famous fan of suspense master Alfred Hitchcock.

According to an interview, Park was a philosophy student at Sogang University in Seoul and wanted to be an art critic. But when he watched Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), he became obsessed with film-making.

Certainly, American studios noticed Park’s crossover potential as early as 2004 and deluged him with screenplays. “Ever since Oldboy, there’s been quite a steady flow of scripts. I never got around to actually counting how many there were. When it all started, these scripts tended to be more stories of vengeance,” he says.

After Thirst, his 2009 thriller about a priest-turned-vampire which won him the Prix du Jury, or third prize, at Cannes, there was a surge in screenplays about the undead, he adds.

But none of the scripts spoke to him till he read Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller’s screenplay for Stoker. The story about a teenager’s awakening to her own destiny, after her father dies and her creepy uncle turns up, had a “very quiet” quality which set it apart from the other scripts, Park says.

Once he was on board for the US$12-million production by Fox Searchlight, the speciality division of Fox Filmed Entertainment, he was involved in the casting – Wasikowska as the teen, Kidman as her widowed mother and Matthew Goode as her uncle – and rewriting.

“From the beginning right to the delivery of the film, there wasn’t anything I really wanted but didn’t get. Nor was there anything I was forced to do,” he says.

There were limits he had to work within, however. The shoot took place in summer 2011 in Nashville – a concession to Kidman, who lives there with her husband, American Idol judge Keith Urban, according to the Los Angeles Times. There is also “a pretty good tax rebate”, Park says.

The toughest thing was having to film Stoker in 40 days, “twice as fast as I’m used to in Korea”, he adds.

In another interview, Australian actress Wasikowska tells how hard it was for Park. “Making films in America, it’s always so much pressure to be finished on time, and money’s running out, and so on,” the 23-year-old says. So it was an adjustment for the director to “strip it back to just the necessary coverage”.

But working with Park, with Jeong interpreting, was “seamless”, she adds. The director seemed to have the entire film in his head, from the visual to the emotional intricacies.

For instance, when she did not anticipate the importance of a little scene where Goode’s character gives her character high heels and slips them on for her, Park reminded her “it was quite a sensual moment”, she recalls.

Watching Stoker, you might wonder if it would have been a more powerful film in Korean and with forceful Korean emoting. But Park says: “I only ever thought of Stoker as Stoker because it’s not like I’m going to remake it.”

The one thing he finds hard to translate, however, is humour. “When I make a Korean film and show it to a Western audience, that’s the part which the Western audience finds most difficult to grasp,” he recounts.

But at the premieres of Stoker at the Sundance Film Festival and in London, “they reacted to every detail of humour I built into the film, and that was a very happy moment”.

Stoker opens in Singapore tomorrow.

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 6, 2013

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