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Cho Young-wuk on waltzes, playgrounds and working with Park Chan-wook

Cho Young-wuk with Christopher Letcher and interpreter Rho Seh-hyun
Cho Young-wuk with Christopher Letcher and interpreter Rho Seh-hyun

So much has changed over the past few years. Nearly 10 years ago Asia House organised the London premiere screening of Lady Vengeance including a Q&A with the director, Park Chan-wook. It was hard not to squirm in embarrassment at the shallowness of some of the questions from the audience, and the moderator could have been better informed too.

For the culmination of the KCC’s three month focus on film composer and music director Cho Young-wuk, a screening of Park Chan-wook’s most famous film, Oldboy, was organised, and the quality of questions and the moderator was leagues ahead of the Lady Vengeance premiere. Cho Young-wuk composed the music for both films, and it is a feature of the increasing sophistication of the Korean film audience in London that there is an appetite to meet the film professionals behind the scenes rather than just the star actors and directors. For the Q&A with Cho Young-wuk, the self-effacing Christopher Letcher, a film composer who has “taught” Oldboy to his students, was lined up to moderate a discussion with the Oldboy composer. A better moderator could hardly have been found; and the audience too asked well-informed, interesting questions – including one who let us know that the Oldboy soundtrack was soon to be released on vinyl by a Danish producer.

A vinyl release of the Oldboy soundtrack
A vinyl release of the Oldboy soundtrack is coming from Invada Records on 18 November 2014

One of the interesting things to emerge from the Q&A that followed the screening was that Cho composed most of the music for Oldboy before any shooting started. His approach to the task was to read the script once only, and then let his imagination run loose. He consciously avoided reading the manga on which the script is based. Once he had decided on the themes for the main characters, he shared them with Park. It was then Park who came up with the idea of bringing some of Cho’s music out of the background music of the soundtrack and into the film itself: the mobile phone ringtone; the alert to signify that Dae-su’s prison cell was about to be gassed; and finally, towards the end, one of the characters even starts humming the tune.

Cho enjoys working with Park, his near neighbour and contemporary from university days. In a roundtable interview with Korean film bloggers earlier in the afternoon, Cho had this to say about his relationship with Park Chan-wook:

I have a very special relationship with director Park Chan-wook. We have been extremely close friends since before we both began our film careers so we will watch films, contemplate films and discuss films together. As you may know, Park Chan-wook is also a major fan of music – he likes classical music etc – and initially I think that’s why he trusted me. He would give me a script and recommend that I think about the music that would go well with that film and when I go back to him with my suggestions he would largely tend to accept them. So, if I could say what I think is really brilliant about Park Chan-wook it is that rather than putting his opinion forward first he listens attentively to those around him and his happy to embrace their suggestions, make them his own and absorb them into a project.

In the Q&A following the Oldboy screening, he was even more effusive: Park “creates a playground” for the people around him.

Cho’s Oldboy score is famous for its waltzes. For Cho, the dance – or his version of it – blends happiness with sadness, and Park was delighted with the style. Since Oldboy, the waltz has become popular in film soundtracks (some of the music of Bittersweet Life seemed directly to copy the Oldboy waltz style), and as a result Cho no longer wants to use it because of that popularity.

Musicians from the Philharmonia
Musicians from the Philharmonia play some of Cho Young-wook’s film music at teh Odeon West End, 25 September 2014

Before the screening, an octet of musicians from the Philharmonia Orchestra (keyboard, clarinet, classical guitar and strings) played a brief collection of tracks from Cho’s film scores. The movies included Nameless Gangster, New World, The Concubine and of course Oldboy. The performance showed the range of films that Cho has worked on, and the diversity of styles that he is comfortable with: from the pastiche Italian Baroque of Lady Vengeance to the Argentinian Tango of Thirst via the more folk-music feeling of The Classic.

A question from the audience asked whether he ever had a particular (international) audience in mind when composing the film scores. Like many of the authors who were asked a similar question at the London Book Fair earlier this year, Cho answered that the main audience he was writing for was himself – though of course the music has to work with the film. And with Oldboy in particular he wanted to make the music commercial to help the film’s success. He cited Pino Donaggio (Dressed to Kill) and Elmer Bernstein among his influences.

Thanks to the KCCUK for their work in putting together this fascinating event as part of their Year of the Film Professionals.


  • Paul Quinn’s transcription of Cho Young-wuk’s group interview with Korean film bloggers on Hangul Celluloid
  • See below a sampler of the upcoming soundtrack release from Soundcloud.

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