An artisan of deviance, South Korean master Park Chan-wook imbues his captivating tales of revenge with elegant depravity and profound romanticism, even if they are occasionally drenched in explicit gore.
Is it this poetic excess that has made him one of the most admired moviemakers of our time? When his uncompromising attitude meets irreproachable craft, brilliance often emerges.
For his latest trip into the consequences of madness born out of love, Park constructs what is perhaps his most perfectly achieved tale and sets it in the 1930s when Korea was under Japanese rule, infusing Sarah Walters’ novel Fingersmith with cultural specificity. The Handmaiden recounts the twisted love affair between Korean thief-turned-maid Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) and wealthy Japanese wife Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), as they navigate their illicit liaison in a plot ridden with mischievous secrets and erotic undertones. Sumptuous frames adorned with performances that range from delicate to vicious make for a wicked delight of a movie, sure to have fans of the auteur swooning.
During Park Chan-wook’s recent visit to Los Angeles, MovieMaker had a chance to meet with him (and his translator) and discuss the creative process behind his impeccable effort.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What qualities about this particular time period in Korean and Japanese relations compelled you to believe this was the right setting to reinvent Sarah Walters’ novel?
Park Chan-wook (PCW): I’m not sure anymore what really comes first. Suddenly there were two elements were important in my decision to stage this during that time. There was something from the source material that I just could not take out, without which the story wouldn’t stand. One of them was this idea of the story being set in a time where there is still this idea of difference, and secondly I needed it to be a world where, just like in the source material, there’s this idea of a modern mental institute. In Korean history this was the only period of time where the class system was still very much a part of Korean society, and there was also this notion, or at least for some people, of a modern mental institution. Also, having one character be a Korean woman and the other a Japanese woman brought one more layer of difference between them to the dynamic, in that they are from two different nationalities. They are from two nations which bear animosity toward each other and that is an added obstacle for the women’s love. The more obstacles you place in their way to find love, the more moving it will be when they do come to find their love together. Looking back now I’m not sure whether one or the other came first—the first being the more pragmatic reasons of adapting the original to the Korean setting; the other being the addition of an extra layer of obstacles in the love story.
MM: In comparison with your previous projects set in the present, was it more challenging to create the universe of the film in The Handmaiden, because of the intricate production design?
PCW: It may appear that way for the audience, but in truth the process of making the film it wasn’t so different from the other films. I put the same amount of interest and effort into making sure the wardrobe and the production design, props, etc, are all faithful to the time period. The only difference is that a period film requires more money.
MM: What was your research process to depict Japanese and Korean culture during the 1930s, from costumes to every object on screen?
PCW: It’s not only myself who does the research—different departments do their research. The wardrobe department, the production design, the art department—they will all conduct their own research, and submit the results of their research for me to review them and pick and chose what elements I want to show from those. In this film there was a lot of that required: research and discussion. For instance, if I wanted to show a lighter, I had to describe a lighter in the scene and I had to make sure that there was research motivating the kind of lighter I wanted to show in the film. Also, for Japanese dialogue, it was not enough to just get somebody who could speak Japanese, but somebody who was familiar with linguistic habits of the Japanese around that time, the cultural background. I had to find an expert who was versed in all of that in order to correctly reflect and recreate all the period.
MM: Both female leads are given equal importance in the film. What particular elements of the source material and your own reinterpretation of this tale in a Korean context did you focus on to achieve this balance?
PCW: We needed to make choices so that there was equal importance between the two women, and the scale didn’t tip over to one or the other side. It was important that, when they reached the end of the story, they actually become equals as well, despite the fact that they’re living in this occupied land. Under colonial imperialism, the class system dictated that they were different people: one was being occupied and the other was the occupier, one was being ruled and the other was from the ruling class. The two them overcoming these differences was an important issue in the film, and because of this there was particular attention needed to make sure they were treated as equally important, and eventually became equals.
MM: How did you approach the editing of the film in order to construct a balanced narrative?
PCW: I collaborated with the editors [Jae-Bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim] to make sure a balance was struck, but it’s not as if there was somebody with a clock measuring to make sure that the two characters had exactly the same amount of screen time. It was more about looking at the bigger picture and the important moments and making decisions that way, so that the characters were equally portrayed.
MM: Our perception of the characters regarding their roles as victims or predators changes via the way the film is structured, looking into specific glimpses of their lives. Did this come from the source material itself or was it your creation?
PCW: That’s something that was executed so well in the source material and it’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to the material. I thought that was important about the source material and I wanted to, as much as I could, bring that alive in making the film—and emphasize it even more.
MM: Tell me about your collaborations with the team working below the line in your projects. How do these relationships allow you to create the films you seek to make, particularly in regards to your visual aesthetic?
PCW: The thing about the DP [Chung-hoon Chung] and production designer [Seong-hie Ryu] whom I work with is that they are truly clever at their work. We make the film together, especially in terms of deciding what the look of the film is going to be. This happens with wardrobe and makeup as well. It’s through this process that I arrive at the look of the film. It’s just like how I collaborate with the sound designer, the composer, the editor, and the VFX supervisor in creating this film—all these heads of departments I have worked together for a long time. Some of them have worked with me since J.S. A., some of them have joined on the set of Lady Vengeance, and some head of departments I found working on Oldboy. Ever since then, I’ve been working with the same people, more or less, which means that we know each other very well, and they always do things as I tell them. They also bring their own ideas to bring to the table, and thanks to their doing, I’m able look at different ideas and combine them with mine to make my films.
MM: Your films, in particular Stoker and Old Boy, are love stories in their own rights—enhanced by other elements, but still love stories in essence. Is this how you look at your films, beyond the violence and shocking aspects?
PCW: Thanks for telling me that, because when I tell that to other people, they just laugh at me. You don’t know how much I appreciate your telling me that. I believe that at their core my films are romantic films.
MM: How do you help your cast see their characters with genuine insight, not just focusing on the segments that some might consider challenging or off-putting?
PCW: Before the shoot begins, I set the script down and I talk to them a lot. If it’s a very violent scene, I tell my actors not to be sidetracked by that and to not be afraid of these scenes because of their violence or whatever, but to really look inside it and look deeper into the core of what it is about. Which is love.
MM: Would you say that in The Handmaid violence is more restrained than in some of your previous works? Here it seems to be less explicit and much more implied.
PCW: In terms of violence yes, but with sex not really. Rather than violence, this film is about desire and pleasure. And those are at the center of the film. This is a film about women who are escaping from male oppression and finding freedom in their sexuality and pleasure in their desire. MM
The Handmaiden opens in theaters October 21, 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures.