Acclaimed South Korean writer and director Park Chan-wook visited the Harvard Film Archives on March 5 for a conversation with Professors Carter Eckert and Alexander Zahlten of Harvard’s East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department.
Park’s visit coincides with a course taught by Eckert and Zahlten titled “Frames in Time: Korean Cinema as History and Filmmaking.” Two of Park’s films headline the syllabus and were shown at the Harvard Film Archives the weekend leading up to his visit. “Joint Security Area” (2000) is a mystery film that centers on a shooting in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, while “The Handmaiden” (2016) is a psychological thriller about how social concerns complicate a love affair in colonial Korea. Park’s filmography also includes “Oldboy,” his 2003 noir action film, and the science fiction picture “Snowpiercer,” among others. Park spoke in Korean throughout the conversation as a translator rendered his responses into English.
After Eckert and Zahlten began the conversation by projecting a montage of iconic scenes from Park’s filmography, Park revisited his early career and recalled his budding passion for film. Two films that resonated with him at a young age were “Vertigo" by American director Alfred Hitchcock and “Hwanyeo '82” (which translates into “Woman of Fire ’82”) by Korean director Ki-Young Kim. "Although I think these two films are very different, the common thread between the two films, to me, is those films have very surreal qualities about them. They depict those objects that are very familiar to us, but it taught me that depending on the perspective of the filmmaker you can present these as very unfamiliar,” Park said.
Jeehae Park, a fellow at Harvard Medical School, said she appreciated Park's use of humor to anchor his films’ emotional cores. “I really liked when he explained how he introduced humor and the effect of it,” she said. “I recognized those from his movies, but I didn’t know how he directed or what kind of effect he tried to make out of those, so it was cool to hear that.”
Park also remarked on the sociopolitical factors that shaped his signature filmmaking style. Growing up as part of the “386 Generation” — a generation of South Koreans born in the 1960s, who went to college in the 1980s, and played a tremendous role in the democratization of their country — Park recalled the protests in which he participated in college. “I came across a lot of teargas. Of course in those days, if you were a student, you took part,” he said. “It is imagining the impending violence that is the most scary. The violence in my films is more about fear of imminent violence.”
While the South Korean struggle for democratization molded part of Park's directorial identity, many of his recent films can be read as social commentaries on more modern issues. When asked how “The Handmaiden” dealt with same-sex romance, Park said, “It is a genre film so the point is not for audience members to say, ‘They're two women — they shouldn’t do that,’ but ‘This woman should swindle the other lady out of money!’” referring to the drastically different socioeconomic backgrounds of the lovers in the film. “It is a big budget film. There were people who were not without concern that we were spending that much money in same-sex romance,” he said. “I was prepared for backlash, but no — it was completely accepted by the public.”
Audience member Reverend G. Stewart Barns, Episcopal Chaplain emeritus and Consultant to Harvard University Health Services, said he was impressed by Park's sincerity. “I was so struck by his honesty, his integrity, his sense of history, his sense of current political movements. And of course in the Handmaiden, his handling of same sex marriages into the texture of his movies. He's really extraordinarily articulate,” he said.
Eckert and Zahlten asked Park about the importance of dealing with conventional narratives, to which he responded that he relished turning tropes on their head. “I take immense joy in misleading the audience, for the audience to find the narrative take a turn into something unexpected — to be surprised,” he said. The very premise of "The Handmaiden," Park explained, is conventional in South Korean cinema: A wealthy Japanese household in the colonial era hires a young Korean handmaiden. But the film quickly devolves into something different — the Handmaiden falls in love with the mistress of the Japanese household she's trying to defraud. Park's unexpected twists in the plot allowed him to explore same-sex relations in a unique light.
Audience member Jacob A. Heberle ’22, who has seen many of Park’s films, said he appreciates Park's particular filmmaking techniques. “He sticks to his own rules,” Heberle said. “He really makes the films the products that he wants, the story he wants to tell, and the message he wants to impart on his audience. For example, he finds a lot of unique ways to put in his own little touch, like adding in dark humor and subverting audience expectations. He likes to play around with film conventions and I think that’s a sign of a great filmmaker.”