A frequent collaborator of renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook, screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung is a force of her own. In a rare interview with Tatler, she tells us about her work, love for Hong Kong movies and the next project she’s working on
The Handmaiden, Thirst and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance—any fan of South Korean cinema would know that these critically acclaimed movies are directed by Park Chan-wook, one of South Korea’s most prolific directors. But the person who penned these successful movies is a force of her own: Chung Seo-kyung. Other than being a frequent Park collaborator, Chung is one of the best film and television writers in South Korea today. Her work with Park remains timeless and legendary and when it comes to screenwriting, she’s unmatched.
Chung has been bestowed with numerous screenwriting awards and nominations locally and internationally such as from the Asian Film Awards, Baeksang Art Awards and Chicago Film Critics Association. Her affinity for thrillers and the bizarre has made her movies both a fan favourite and critic darling. This year, Chung is participating in a masterclass and workshop at the first-ever New Shores, New Waves: Busan International Film Festival in Hong Kong with two of her films also screening at the event.
Ahead of her online appearance, Tatler catches up with the screenwriter in a rare interview where she talks about her work, Park Chan-wook, her love for Hong Kong movies and the Korean drama she’s currently working on.
Have you always been interested in movies?
Since I was young, I always enjoyed reading. At that time, I wasn’t that interested in movies but when I reached my 20s, all of a sudden I fell in love with movies. But despite that, I’m still in love with books. Though I like both movies and books now, the reason I prefer movies and write for movies is that they are different media. When you read the book, it’s always just black and white. But when you watch a video or when you make a video, it’s more three dimensional. And the sensations and feelings are totally different.
Do you think the film industry in South Korea is still male-dominated? How does it feel to be a female TV and film writer today?
10 years ago, I always receive this kind of question about South Korea being a male-dominated society and of course, the film industry is also male-dominated. But right now, I don’t think like that anymore. I’m working on a TV drama and there are about 20–30 crew members and I was surprised because there’s only one male crew member. Right now, I think the Korean film industry slightly moving away from being male-dominated. I think there are more and more women in the industry. The male-female ratio and in terms of the film industry members is maybe about 50:50.
I also think about what will it be like in five years time. I’m quite optimistic about this as there are more up and coming female directors these years and they’re making really good films and most of the outstanding new filmmakers are women. So I think in five years time, there will be more and more female staff, crew members and so on.
Tell us how you first met director Park Chan-wook and how your continuous work together came about?
I think I first met director Park, 17 years ago. At that time, I participated in a short film competition and he was the jury member. I won the prize for the short film and two years after the competition when director Park finished making his film Oldboy, he said he wanted to work on a new project and needed somebody to write the script for him. And he remembered me.
Before meeting him, I had already written some scripts on my way. When I presented them to investors, they always commented how my scripts are all very strange, weird and bizarre. But that seems to be something that director Park likes so that’s how we came to work together.
What’s it like working with director Park?
He’s an easygoing person and by that I mean he doesn’t talk a lot which makes it easy for me. He always asks me to write something on my own and he accepts them. The scripts that I write, even though they are rejected by TV stations or other companies, it fit director Park’s tastes so it’s easy for me to work with him. It’s also very interesting and fun to work with him.
You’ve written many scripts for film and TV, do you have a particular one that remains memorable to you?
I'm more impressed with the TV drama that I made two years ago called Mother. It’s a story adapted from a Japanese TV drama which was in turn adapted from a Japanese book. I heard a lot of stories between a mother and child from the actresses. For example, she would tell me what it’s like to be a mother. When they watch the drama, they also liked it because they’re all mothers so I was really happy at that time.
The movies that you’ve worked on with him, they’re women-dominated. We see that in The Handmaiden and Lady Vengeance. Is that an influence from you?
After making Oldboy, director Park wanted to work on a new movie with a female lead. So maybe that’s why he would have wanted to work with a female scriptwriter like myself. And you’re right that these films are more female-oriented compared to Oldboy. He might have been influenced by me but I’m not quite sure about that. I think he also has his own ideas and thoughts and just decided that he wants to have a female lead in these projects.
Whenever I write a script, it’s quite difficult for me to develop male characters. On the other hand, it’s also difficult for director Park to develop female characters so, in a way, we both complement each other.
What kind of stories are you looking forward to telling?
Right now I’m working on a new TV drama, the Korean adaptation of Little Women. I’m going to be touching on the lives of women. It also would reflect on the dimensions of Korean society and it’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to showing.
Tell us about the New Waves, New Shores: Busan International Film Festival in Hong Kong that you’re participating in.
This came about when I received a letter from Hong Kong. I really like Hong Kong and used to go there twice a year so it was interesting that I received this letter, even the content is interesting. Nowadays, there are a lot of young Hong Kong people who love Korean content so it reminded me of my teenage years.
When I was young, I liked Hong Kong movies too and actually watched more Hong Kong movies than Korean movies. It was really fascinating to know that young Hongkongers like Korean films so I really want to talk to them and that’s why I decided to participate in this festival.
Since this film festival will showcase the works of both Hong Kong and South Korea, what do you think the Hong Kong film industry can learn from yours?
I don’t know the Hong Kong movie industry in-depth but I recently watched a few Hong Kong movies like Better Days and Soul Mates. And these movies are about the youth and growing up. I was surprised that all of them keep a good secret. When I watched these films and see their stories as well as the secrets of the characters, I compared them with Korean films and I found that the Hong Kong movies seem to be more vivid in portraying the secrets or the lives of women, especially young women these days.
The Korean movie industry is more focused on making genre films or genre TV shows so they don’t really focus much on these kinds of raw stories that were featured in the Hong Kong films I mentioned. I’m not quite sure that the Korean movie industry or the Hong Kong movie industry can learn from each other, but I think maybe this is one of the things that they can take into reference.
You mentioned you’re working on a new TV project. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, I’m working with the director of Vincenzo for a Korean adaptation of Little Women. The leading actresses are Kim Go-eun and Nam Ji-hyun while the male lead is Hwi Ha-joon from Squid Game. I actually read the book, Little Women when I was young and I really loved it.
Recently, I had the chance to read it again when I working on this drama and I find that it’s a bit boring and not interesting anymore. The sisters are too nice in the books and I don’t think young people are really like that these days. The Korean adaptation isn’t going to be exactly like the book, some things will remain the same like of course, there will three sisters and their personalities will remain more or else the same.
Do you find a difference when you write the script for movies and for dramas?
For TV dramas, it always feels unbelievable because there’s only one person writing a whole drama. But I’m still working as a screenwriter and Little Women has maybe 12 episodes. It’s very long compared to making movies.
The South Korean movie industry is booming, more so with the popularity of Parasite and Squid Game. Do you have any hopes for the future?
It’s not really something that I think about so I don’t have any high hopes. It would be great if there’s an environment to cultivate more diversified stories.
What do you hope Hong Kong viewers can get out of watching your movies at the film festival?
Believer will be shown at the festival and it’s actually adapted from a Hong Kong movie by Johnnie To. I watched the original and I liked it a lot. I was impressed by the pacing of the film and Johnnie To is a director who just does what he wants to do which really impresses me. And when the movie was adapted into Korean, I had to make some adjustments by putting in elements of Korean society. I'm really curious how the Hong Kong audiences will react and connect with the Korean version.
And then Thirst, it’s a movie about a vampire. The vampire genre is already a really popular genre even in South Korea so I, too, am curious how the audience will react to that.
The New Waves, New Shores: Busan International Film Festival in Hong Kong is running from 25 November 2021 to 16 January 2022. For more information about Chung Seo-Kyung’s masterclass and workshop, please visit hkac.org.hk.