Park Chan-Wook Talks 'The Handmaiden', Homosexuality Onscreen and Korean Films' Specific Appeal (Q&A)

Park Chan-Wook - H 2016
David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

After making his English-language debut with the disappointing 'Stoker' in 2013, the South Korean auteur is returning to his boundary-pushing roots with the erotic thriller.

It's been four years since a South Korean movie has played in Cannes competition lineup, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the film, an erotic thriller called The Handmaiden, is directed by South Korea’s most notorious modern filmmaker, Park Chan-wook.

Park has become the virtual face of contemporary South Korean cinema ever since his 2003 Cannes Grand Prix-winning Oldboy propelled him to international prominence, carving out a reputation for onscreen extremism (remember that live octopus?) at the same time. Based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park’s latest relocates the book from Victorian England to colonial Korea to tell the sexually charged story of a servant girl (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) who is hired by a conman to help win the trust of a wealthy heiress, only to watch helplessly as the two women enter into a passionate affair.

The 52-year-old, who produced Bong Joon-ho’s blockbuster Snowpiercer, talked to THR about portraying sexuality onscreen, why he’s a "conservative" director and what has changed since making his Hollywood debut with 2013’s Stoker.

How do you feel about returning to Cannes?

The Palais has one of the most wonderful screens, so I am really looking forward to watching my film there. I like to take photographs, which I like to think of as a separate [creative process] from my work as a filmmaker, and I plan to travel around Southern France and take pictures.

Is it fair to say that you see parallels between the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), where you set the story of The Handmaiden, and Victorian England, the setting of the novel?

There were two vital conditions that I believed were necessary for adapting the novel. The first was the existence of a class system and the other was the Western institution of the mental hospital. It would have been pointless to remake the story if I lost one or the other, so my only choice was the Japanese colonial era, when Korea was undergoing modernization and Westernization.

Newcomer Kim Tae-ri (second from left) stars in 'The Handmaiden' as a young maid who develops an intimate relationship with her employer.

Japanese colonialism remains a sensitive issue in Korea, and it was only recently that filmmakers began to fully — and freely — explore the entertainment value of stories set during that time.

It’s important for films to explore the independence movement and anti-colonialism. But unlike many Korean dramas, which tend to automatically depict the Japanese as villains, my characters aren’t good or evil just by virtue of being Korean or Japanese. My story is about individual lives set during a particular era. I did not try to isolate the story by removing it from historical events, nor did I allow history to overpower the narrative. I felt it was important to portray the changing spirit of the time, however, such as class conflicts, women’s issues, as well medical issues and how mental illnesses were feared and led to prison-like confinement.

Among women’s issues you explore is lesbianism. Why?

From the larger scheme of things I am a genre filmmaker, albeit one of slightly altered genres. Even though I explore such a genre-specific topic as homosexuality, it was not my intention to make a human rights film showing individuals overcoming discrimination. Similar to how I wanted to focus on individuals living through the colonial era rather than a story about the colonial era itself, I always wanted to create a movie that portrayed [homosexual romance] as something natural, as just a normal part of life.

You examine the theme of vengeance once again. But ultimately you seem to be more interested in motivation and human desire than vengeance itself.

Yes. There is certainly a recurring topic. But like you said, vengeance itself is not the main subject matter. From the larger scheme of things, my films are mostly thrillers that feature the psychological motivations for vengeance.

There were originally talks about making the film in 3D. The psychological-thriller elements of it could have worked well.

There were talks of 3D during the initial stages of the project, but it became a budget issue. I sometimes wonder even now what it would have been like in 3D. The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, who then becomes the subject of observation in the second half. There are elements of voyeurism and observing others from behind doors and closets, and I thought it would be interesting to utilize 3D visuals in a hushed manner. Hitchcock already did this in Dial M for Murder, but the technology at the time made it a little shoddy. I thought it would workwell using modern-day technology.

Would you like to work in 3D one day?

Definitely one day. People are saying 3D is going out of style, but that makes me want to do it all the more. I would like to do it when no one else is.

You have a reputation as a pioneer when it comes to digital technology. But then you went back to analogue film for Thirst. What kind of visuals did you want to achieve in The Handmaiden?

I am a conservative who finds more beauty in the look of analogue films. In Korea, however, it is no longer possible [since all cinemas have become digitized]. To achieve the analogue look, I got a 1970s anamorphic CinemaScope lens by Hawk, and I’m quite satisfied.

Digital movies seem to lack the depth of analogue films.

Digital movies definitely lack polish. I wanted to re-create the color palette of old Technicolor movies, which I think Tarantino would have done already if he could, but it’s impossible unless you use the film technology from that time. Even for my photography, it was only recently that I went digital. Nowadays I take digital photos and then edit them on my iPad using simple apps. I discovered the fun and convenience of this process. I took Leica monochrome photos on the set of The Handmaiden, which I plan to publish as a book.

This is your first Korean film since making your Hollywood debut with Stoker. What’s changed after your experience in the U.S.?

I cut down the number of takes after seeing how speedy productions were in Hollywood. We took more than 100 shots for Thirst, but for The Handmaiden, I was able to actually downsize to 68 from what was originally planned as 70-something. Having more shots enables you to edit on the site, hold meetings and have fun as active participants of the cooperative art that is filmmaking. But efficiency didn’t mean sacrificing all the joys of the joint creative process, and moreover it enabled us to keep safely within the budget and to honor the labor contract conditions [for cast and crew, which is a relatively new phenomenon in Korea].

Korea is one of the few countries around the world where local films outperform Hollywood imports. Why is that?

Korean society is very dynamic and is always undergoing rapid transformations. I think this is what makes Koreans so passionate and tense, and possess such intense emotions overall of rage, jealousy, etc. And so, emotions in works that Koreans produce run at an extremely high gauge, and, on top of that, are very complex.

Do you have future projects planned in Hollywood? Is the growing Chinese film market on your radar?

There have been discussions about several Hollywood projects, but I’ll have to see after The Handmaiden [opens in May] and start looking into some of the scripts I received. As for China, if there are good stories, then I am always willing to work. [Chinese audiences like happy endings] and my films can be happy, too.