If you were to draft a list of the artists most responsible for the ever-expanding global popularity of Korean film and television, Park Chan-wook — the director of Oldboy and this year’s Oscar frontrunner Decision to Leave — would undoubtedly fall somewhere at the top. Far less known, however, is the name of the woman responsible for co-writing all of Park’s films since the early 2000s: Chung Seo-kyung. Park met Chung, then an aspiring writer, while serving on the jury of a Korean short-film competition in which she was competing sometime around 2001. After winning the Cannes Grand Prix in 2003 for Old Boy and deciding to that his next movie would be more female-centric, Park remembered Chung’s spark and peculiar sensibility and reached out to her to write a draft of a script.
That project became his sixth feature, 2005’s Lady Vengeance, and the duo have co-written every one of the director’s Korean features since, from his acclaimed 2016 erotic thriller The Handmaiden to last year’s stunning Hitchcockian drama Decision to Leave, a leading Oscar contender in the best international film category, as well as a dark horse contender for best director. Park regularly credits Chung for giving his stories a more balanced gender perspective as well as many of the sharp ideas that are commonly identified as his signature. THR connected with Chung for a conversation about the evolution of her creative partnership with Park.
When I spoke with director Park around the time of Decision to Leave‘s premiere at Cannes last year, he mentioned that you co-write your screenplays in a very literal way. He said you sit across from each other in the same room, with the script open on your respective computers in the cloud, and then you literally write and revise the same document simultaneously. Decision to Leave is such a rich and complicated film — is that really how you did it?
That doesn’t describe the entire process, but it is a big part of it. We discuss and agree upon a treatment together, and then I move forward with the first draft. Then, for the second draft, we go through revisions working side by side as you described. At the very final stage, director Park works on the script alone, or with a few members of his cast or crew, adding his final personal touches. But yeah, for a big part of the process, we sit side by side and revise and write simultaneously.
How did you develop your method?
When I started working with director Park, I was still a new screenwriter who had not yet officially debuted. Meanwhile, he was already considered a master filmmaker who had recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes [for 2003’s Oldboy]. But regardless of that difference in our status, he regarded me as an equal creative partner — and that’s how he’s always treated me ever since. Personally, though, I didn’t feel the same way. I was not confident that I would be able to write a professional, commercial feature at that point. But even though I didn’t have much faith in myself, I just worked away on the script on my own because director Park was so busy and he had asked me to write a first draft. I did my best — but reflecting back on it now, I don’t think that draft I ended up giving him was of a very high caliber. But somehow he wasn’t taken aback by the quality of it at all. Instead, all he said was, “Well, now we can start revising.”
So we rented out a hotel room with a large table and we sat across from each other. We had two monitors and two keyboards and we started revising the script together in tandem. A bunch of the other crewmembers and colleagues would gather around the table and watch us as we worked — it almost felt like people watching a game of table tennis. We worked together in that space for many days and nights, going back and forth, and that’s how we finished the revised script of Lady Vengeance. Reflecting back on it, it was a such a fun experience because it really was like a game where I didn’t want to lose with all the crewmembers watching me. And after we finished that draft, I think director Park and I both knew that neither of us could have written that version on our own. And that method of working together has essentially continued on for the past 20 years.
Are you able to distinguish what you each bring to the work — your individual qualities, colors or strengths as screenwriters?
At the start, it was easy to distinguish what parts of the script we were each responsible for. For instance, I was mostly writing the female characters and director Park would write the action sequences. But eventually, the boundaries became a lot more blurred, and now it’s very hard to tell who wrote what. There are lines that seem like director Park must have written them, but they actually came from me. And conversely, there are lines from the female characters that you would suspect came from me but which were actually director Park’s. And there are many lines that came from both of us because we each tweaked them subtly along the way.
The last time I spoke with director Park, he told me that when I speak with you, I should be aware that you often say things in interviews just to tease him. He almost seemed to be warning me in advance that I should doubt you!
(Laughs.) Well, let me put it this way: When we first started working together, I considered our relationship to be that of a boss and an employee. Later, it started to feel like we were spending most of our time in the workspace together just chitchatting, and it began to feel like a real friendship rather than just another work relationship. Now, at this point, we’re often spending even our holidays working together, and I feel like I’ve long ago noticed everything there is to notice about him — the many good things and, of course, the bad things, which I tease him about. You could say we’ve reached the stage where we are like family. So it’s true: When we’re onstage at events together in Korea, I love to play a little aggressive and tease him in front of the crowd. But it only makes them applaud him all the more because of course he’s very elegant and gracious about it all. So, then I have to tease him even more. (Laughs.)
You know, in Korean society, there’s a strong cultural expectation of respect for your elders, so since director Park is both my elder and such a globally esteemed figure in the film industry, I think people are always entertained to see me give him a little hard time. It’s like we’re a comedy duo.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.