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6 Filmmaking Tips from Park Chan-wook

An icon of Korean cinema prods us with inspiration.
The Handmaiden Park Chan-wook filmmaking tips
By  · Published on October 19th, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking advice of Park Chan-wook.

Following a slow start as an unknown filmmaker in the 1990s then a brief stint as a film critic to feed his family, Park Chan-wook burst onto his local scene with 2000’s Joint Security Area, a humongous hit in South Korea. Four years later, thanks to a Quentin Tarantino-led Cannes jury honoring it with a top prize, Oldboy became an international sensation.

Since then, he’s continued to titillate audiences around the world, and his success is primarily thanks to his innate talent as an exciting cinematic storyteller. Therefore, he obviously has no advice to give on how to be a great director. But he does have the following six tips on what to do with your ability if you’re born with it.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Park Chan-wook

1. You Have No Excuse

Park believes that if you’re really a filmmaker, you can’t not be a filmmaker, and he considers it almost like an addiction. He has said that once you start making films, you can’t stop. But you have to start, and nowadays there’s absolutely no reason to put off that start by any measure. Here’s some advice he gives to young filmmakers in the book “FilmCraft: Directing”:

Now we live in a day and age where, unlike when I first started out in the film business, digital technology enables you to make films even if you don’t have the money, even if you don’t have hundreds of people working on your film. So no longer can you use the excuse that you have talent, but you don’t have the resources. Now we live in an age where you can shoot a film with your iPhone and upload it to YouTube and see what you’ve done. So that old excuse doesn’t apply to the new generation anymore.

And Park definitely knows about making movies with an iPhone. Check out his 2011 short Night Swimming, shot with an iPhone 4, on Vimeo here. And watch some behind the scenes on its making below.

2. Don’t Start Out Aiming for Perfection

Last year, the Marrakech International Film Festival paid tribute to Park, and he also participated in a conversation there in front of an audience. You can watch a highlight video at The Film Stage, but here’s some advice he gave, through his interpreter, to filmmakers still stuck in the writing stage:

A common beginner’s mistake would be to try and be perfect about everything that you write, and each line that you write you want to make it perfect. If you work like that, you will come up against a block. And once you are in that situation, you just cannot move any step further from that. When you are stuck, it doesn’t matter what cliche you have to use or what trashy piece of line of action or dialogue you might have to subscribe to, but it is important to get over that block, and get to the end. You can always come back to it later. If your first draft is not full of treasure, it doesn’t matter. You can come back later and make it that way. You can come back and craft it so it’s full of treasure.

Watch Park Chan-wook Discuss ‘Vertigo,’ Filmmaking Advice, and More in Marrakech Talk

3. Everything Must Happen For a Reason

Eventually, while films need not be perfect, they should at least be precise in what they consist of. Park subscribes to the idea that everything on screen must be there for a reason, as he explains in a 2013 Den of Geek interview:

Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish. How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.

It’s the same thing for a filmmaker. Not one thing that you see or hear in the film is there randomly. Everything is designed, everything is intended, everything is there to perform a function. So when it comes to these patterns, a filmmaker simply cannot choose to have it there simply because it’s pretty.

Park Chan Wook filmmaking

Marie Claire Korea via Wikicommons

4. Shock and Stimulate

Park is known for being one of the world’s most provocative filmmakers, mainly for his explicit use of violence and his controversial stories and plot twists involving such elements as incest and lesbianism, the latter still a taboo subject in South Korea. He’s offered different levels of address on why he and his movies provoke audiences, but this excerpt from a 2006 Future Movies interview remains the best explanation:

I think that a film director asks questions of the audience. And modern audiences often fail to respond to questions being asked. So you have to use shocking and stimulating things to stimulate them…It’s about the people ‐ the public. They want more stimulation. You know, in an action movie they want more cars to be smashed. I think it’s the same when you’re asked philosophical questions, artistic questions or moral questions. You need more stimulation for them to respond. So I’m a kind of film director who smashes one more car if you like!

5. Play Out Your Fantasies

Being associated with revenge thrillers, Park often discusses not just the nature of vengeance tales but also their importance. On one hand, they’re another kind of engagement for the audience, and they’re a benefit to the filmmakers, as well. Here’s another quote from the Future Movies interview:

Revenge is something that makes you happy and invigorates you only when it is in your imagination. But when it comes to actually realizing this it is never happy and never gives you pleasure. Because it is an act of total stupidity…So as long as revenge is in the imagination it is good for your mental health. But it must be infinitely put off, must be infinitely delayed.

And here is another version of his regular acknowledgment of the catharsis of such stories in a 2006 Guardian profile:

Living without hate for people is almost impossible. There is nothing wrong with fantasizing about revenge. You can have that feeling. You just shouldn’t act on it.

In the below video, Park answers audience questions focused on Oldboy and recognizes that making movies like it is exhilarating after having suppressed his anger throughout his life.

In a new interview for The A.V. Club, Park goes further to discuss how all revenge movies must end a certain way and be recognized by the audience as foolish:

When [the audience] see a vengeance drama, they see the protagonist has lost something. This makes them sympathize with the protagonist and angers them. And they go on this journey with the protagonist, and on this journey, they root for the protagonist. Never once do they ask the question about how fruitless or meaningless this act of vengeance is. Or rather, [they don’t ask] why the protagonist doesn’t just concentrate on his life here and now, and try to think about living the rest of his life in a more fulfilling way rather than engage in a fruitless endeavor. This thought doesn’t come across the audience[’s minds].

So they only pursue this foolish desire, and it’s only at the end of the film, as they come out the theater, [that they] reflect on what they’ve seen and realize how foolish the business of vengeance is. Good vengeance drama should always make the audience think this way.

6. Any Review is a Good Review

“Even if you have a bad review, you still got a review,” Park says via the translator in the Marrakech International Film Festival video linked to above. He explains that his first two films were completely ignored, which was worse than having no review at all. He also talks about his time as a critic and how he would only review movies he liked, so if you didn’t get one from him that meant he didn’t like it but wouldn’t explain why.

According to a festival report by The Atlantic, Park also touched on the idea a day earlier in Marrakech at a Master Class, telling attendees that bad reviews are still good because “at least you got a review…. You’re still sparking conversation.” And that, of course, goes along with the need to shock and stimulate. The filmmaker also related criticism and audience response to the frustrating but beneficial studio notes he received for his 2013 English-language debut, Stoker. As quoted by The Atlantic:

“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.”

Like ‘Stoker?’ Here’s a List of Park Chan-wook’s Korean Films Ranked Least-Best to Best

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Given the kinds of movies he makes, Park appears to be a fairly laid back guy in interviews, yet his words are often more fittingly rousing. Basically all of the above tips have something to do with just doing it and plowing through it with a concentrated force of creativity and commotion.

If you’re meant for it, make something. But don’t just make something, make sure that something gets seen and talked about. It doesn’t have to be the best something, though it should be focused in what it is maybe what it’s saying, and it has to generate discussion, even if negative.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.