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"The Reason to Direct was Present in Every Episode," Director, Executive Producer, Co-Showrunner of The Sympathizer, Park Chan-wook.

May 07, 2024
  • Source by CINE21
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Park Chan-wook


- It has been mentioned that the background behind directing The Sympathizer is not unrelated to Korea's history with the Vietnam War. The participation in the Vietnam War has had a significant impact on Korean society to this day. Korea was once a colony, and was scarred by the Korean war. In terms of the tragedy of a divided nation, Joint Security Area comes to mind, but the perspective when making that movie and directing The Sympathizer would have been different.

=Vietnam's history is not entirely unrelated to ours, somewhere in the middle. In some aspects, it's different, and in others, it's similar. Therefore, we can maintain a more objective distance. The Sympathizer not only accentuates Vietnamese characters, but also American characters played by Robert Downey Jr. and Sandra Oh. In that regard, it's a completely different work from Joint Security Area. There are also similarities. Sophie (Played by Lee Young-ae) in Joint Security Area is a Korean-American with both Caucasian and Asian heritage, so she has a unique perspective like Captain in The Sympathizer who takes both sides' perspectives.


-This American HBO drama where a Vietnamese actor takes the lead role and about half of the dialogue is in Vietnamese was directed by a Korean. It's significant that a drama talking about the identity crisis of a border person was created in such a diverse environment.

=First of all, I want to highly commend HBO for making the decision. It wouldn't have been easy to choose a Korean as a showrunner considering the fact that it's a high-budget production. However, the result helped The Sympathizer acquire diversity as a series. A talented American or Vietnamese director could also be good, but a Korean showrunner could have a proper distance.


-You participated as the Co-showrunner and Executive producer, overseeing multiple producers. You directed the first three episodes, while Fernando Meirelles directed the fourth, and Mark Munden directed episodes fifth to seventh. Was there active communication to align the overall mise-en-scène, or was it left to each director's individual style?

=The episode 4, which includes scenes from a movie set, is quite independent within the overall story. Therefore, it was directed by Fernando Meirelles, who has a strong personal style. The other episodes were all shot by the director of photography, Kim Ji-yong, except for the episode 4, which was primarily handled by Barry Ackroyd, who usually worked with Ken Loach. The editing deliberately differed to match Meirelles' directorial style, which was enjoyable. For episode 5 to 7, I showed the footage I already shot to the director Mark Munden to explain the atmosphere. With Kim Ji-yong as the director of photography, we were able to maintain consistency. There's no shortage of calling it a single work.


-When reading the original novel, I naturally imagined that you would direct the episode containing the production process of "The Hamlet" (which overtly evokes Apocalypse Now). What was the reason for entrusting the episode dealing with challenges like perspective and the cinematic reproduction to a different director?

=The reason was present in every episode. However, it was too difficult for me to handle both the role of showrunner and the production process while writing the entire screenplay. While other directors were shooting their respective episodes, I had to write the script for the next episode, so I couldn't handle it all by myself. With tears in my eyes, I had to hand over the direction from episode 4 onwards. Episode 4 is more energetic, humorous, and delves more deeply into cultural clashes. Having an American director shoot the story of the Vietnam War in the United States is somewhat "tragicomic" reality for Asians. While the original novel was imagined by a novelist, the drama draws more from the actual experiences of filmmakers, making it the most adapted episode.


Park Chan-wook


-The original novel is narrated in the voice of the Captain's inner thoughts. It described his identity crisis without filtering, there seems some readers consider the novel is somewhat perplexing. Dramatizing wasn't challenging?

=There are many voices of that. I read the novel after receiving the offer to produce the show, and didn't find the adaptation to be daunting. It was visually imaginable. With the bone of 'the Captain writing a confession letter', the story's format was set, and the inner voice could be handled through voiceover. I thought we could create an engaging narrative by utilizing concrete devices, rather than just narrating the thoughts in one's head through voiceover. For instance, the scene where the Captain explains his confession letter when interrogated by the camp director can be presented in dialogue format. We can also employ engaging cinematic techniques that blend seamlessly with the narrative, such as involving rewinding to the past from freezing frames and then delivering new information.


-I heard that a special grain effect was added to create a film-like look. The title sequence also exudes a classic movie vibe.

=Recreating a film look has always been a big challenge for me since the advent of digital filmmaking. Except for I'm a Cyborg, But That's okay, which was made to experiment with digital technology, I wanted to shoot the rest on film but couldn't. The 1970s era background especially doesn't go well with sharp digital images. We employed every possible method including grain, lighting, and color correction to create a natural and classic film look.


-I didn't think works like The Little Drummer Girl or The Sympathizer prominently showcased Park Chan-wook's distinctive style. Do you consciously maintain a distance when directing a series?

=Since I've only directed two series so far, it's hard to say there's a standard for choosing projects. However, a common factor in those two series is that I read and liked the original novels, which led me to direct them. Thirst, an adaptation of Émile Zola's ‘Thérèse Raquin’, and The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters' ‘Fingersmith’, saw significant changes in the story, but in the series, I respected the original plot and characters while writing the screenplay. Films need a lot of adaptation to fit the limited runtime, but series don't require as much. Also, series is a medium I choose because, when I want to bring as many characters to life as possible, including supporting role, and try conventional dramatic narrative techniques like cliff-hangers. Hence, my approach differs when directing films and series. There isn't much time to create storyboards, so I rely on simple shooting plans consisting of just a few sentences and improvise a lot on set to handle situations promptly. After shooting with two cameras, I get to be more creative in the editing room. This kind of work is exciting and enjoyable. Switching between films and series also helps me refresh my mood.


-Many may discover actor Hoa Xuande for the first time through The Sympathizer. What was the background behind casting him? Sandra Oh's appearance seemed to visually represented incident that the loosely connected cohesion between Korean-Americans and Koreans.

=First, the lead actor had to be fluent in both Vietnamese and English and be of mixed race. We initially looked for actors who met these criteria. Even though auditions may seem daunting, when you meet the right person, you can tell in an instant. Hoa Xuande was an actor I made a judgment in my heart at the first sight much like the moment I saw Kim Tae-ri for the first time. However, there was pressure to make a careful decision as he would be the protagonist among all the protagonists in the large-scale production. We met multiple times in the United States, Korea, and via video calls over a long period before making the decision. Since it wasn't a decision, I could make alone, there was a process of aligning various opinions, and I have no doubts about that judgment. He performed so well that you wouldn't believe he's a young and inexperienced actor. Sandra Oh starred in the debut work of co-showrunner Don McKellar. The two are almost best friends, so they've met before. I've always admired her acting. I was worried if Sandra Oh would agree to appear as a supporting character, so I'm grateful that she agreed to join us. She's a very precise actor who adjusts the intensity of emotional expression with delicate planning and perfect control.


-Robert Downey Jr. portrays a character representing some of America's privileged classes, including an Orange County congressman, a CIA agent, and a Hollywood film director. What was the reason behind choosing a globally recognized superstar to play such a multifaceted role?

=Originally, The Sympathizer was conceived as a six-part series. During discussions with the producers and co-showrunners about how to adapt the original work, there was deliberation on how to portray the white male characters. While each character had varying degrees of importance, they were all significant regardless of their screen time. However, casting becomes difficult if we cast different actors for each character. There was concern that the presence of the characters wouldn't be as strong as desired. Ultimately, considering that if the American system, or what could be called 'imperialism', is one body of American ideology, the four characters represent different faces of America. The idea emerged that if one actor portrayed them all, they would essentially share one body, a concept that audiences would likely perceive as well. There was also a practical consideration of wanting a famous actor who could skillfully and energetically portray the various facets of the characters and attract audience attention. The first actor who came to mind was Robert Downey Jr..


-The Sympathizer presents the discord between ideals and reality, questioning whether a multi-dimensional individual can truly establish a revolution. What is the significance of creating a work with such questions in today's era?

=Amidst the fierce ideological battles, attention must be given to the issue of the continued inevitability of sacrifices and the disappearance of individuals. Although ideals, progress, and revolutions manifesting pose incredible challenges, it is crucial never to give up. An objective perspective capable of showcasing both individuals and tolerance is essential.



Written by Lim Su-yeon

Translated by Jang Yuri


Republication, copying or redistribution by any means is prohibited without the prior permission of KOFIC and the original news source.
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