When South Korean director Park Chan-wook made the film “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” in 2002, there were no plans to follow it up with two more quirky, nasty, violent entries that would eventually morph the three films into what’s now known as his “Vengeance Trilogy.” Director Park wasn’t even aware of the hit Japanese manga (comic book) called “Oldboy” until his producer approached him with a copy.
“He suggested it would be a good project to adapt the manga into a film,” said Park, through his translator, by phone from South Korea. “The element that attracted me was that it took place in a private incarceration facility. The room was described in the manga as being between the seventh and eighth floors — the 7.5 floor — somewhere that nobody can really know exists. And in this place, one of our neighbors, who is known to be missing, is incarcerated. That starting point was something that mesmerized me. I thought the set-up was rather brilliant. That’s why I decided to do it.”
Though “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” (2003), and the third leg of the trilogy, “Lady Vengeance’’ (2005), made Park a rising star as a director in Korea, only “Oldboy,” a twisted tale of kidnapping, revenge, and deep, dark family secrets, crossed over in America to cult classic territory. Park went on to make the comedy “I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK” (2006), the vampire thriller “Thirst” (2009), and his first English-language film, this year’s fantasy-drama “Stoker.” In the middle of all of that, Steven Spielberg decided to direct an American remake of “Oldboy,” which would star Will Smith. Unspecified studio issues eventually scuttled that idea, but the script adaptation, by Mark Protosevich (“I Am Legend,” “Poseidon”), started making the Hollywood rounds, eventually landing in the laps of Spike Lee and Josh Brolin.
“When I first heard about Steven Spielberg and Will Smith I couldn’t believe it,” said Park. “Because the film I had made had an incestual element in there. And to have that theme handled by these two people was something that I couldn’t immediately believe. But I thought that if they really made it work, it would be a very shocking film that audiences would be surprised by.”
Park was less surprised and quite happy when he later learned that Spike Lee would be directing it.
“When I was a student [at Sogang University in Seoul], in the USA independent filmmaking was very lively,” he said. “I remember looking at these independent films with admiration and somewhat a sense of envy. Spike Lee is one of the representative filmmakers of that independent scene. I saw his movies, and I remember learning a lot from them. So to hear that he was making ‘Oldboy’ was very moving for me.
“When I had graduated university and couldn’t find an opportunity to make a film, I was out of work, and would spend time with my friends,” he added. “I remember getting together with them and putting [the soundtrack from] ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ on the turntable because we were all fans of jazz. And we would keep watching Spike’s film. That’s a strong memory for me from that period of my life.”
Yet, apart from watching the trailer, Park still doesn’t know what Lee has done in his adaptation.
“When I was in New York to promote ‘Stoker,’ I was invited to come by Spike Lee’s editing suite. But unfortunately we couldn’t work out the schedule. I regret not having been able to say hello to him, but that’s the only thing I regret. Not having seen the film back then, I would like to have the same experience as the cinema-going audience. I want to share in the excitement of seeing this film for the first time with an audience.”
Though Park wasn’t comfortable talking about any specific future projects, he did admit that he’s a fan of American musicals.
“I’ve been saying that I’m interested in doing a western or a sci-fi or an espionage thriller,” he said. “But I would also one day like to do a musical, something like what Scorsese has shown with ‘New York, New York,’ something that retains that classical quality as well as infusing a sense of modernity to it.”
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.