“Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook’s well-reviewed Cannes competition entry “The Handmaiden” (Magnolia, October 21) marks the filmmaker’s return to South Korea after his 2013 English-language debut “Stoker.” His goal these days is to do one Korean-language film for every English-language film, taking advantage of varied stories and world-class actors.
Park’s deliciously twisted and kinky adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2002 British novel “Fingersmith,” relocated set to the Japanese occupation of ’30s Korea, is a gorgeous and erotic portrait of two women, a con artist Korean servant (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) and her powerful Japanese mistress (Korean star Kim Min-hie, “Right Now, Wrong Then”), who band together to rise up against their male oppressors.
Or do they? Park keeps us guessing as he parcels out surprising tidbits of information in satisfying ways. As we watch the complex plot unfold, we realize that we cannot rely on our unreliable narrators, who often don’t know all that is going on. But of one thing we are sure: these two duplicitous women, one Korean, one Japanese, love and desire each other. As their goals and desires merge and diverge, we wonder just how they will come out ahead of the men who are manipulating them. Rooting for the two women is what makes this yummy feminist movie so much fun to watch.
I talked to Park in May on a sunny hotel rooftop at Cannes (I was the only American at an international roundtable), and again at UCLA screening series Sneak Previews, where he was accompanied by actress Kim Tae-ri and interpreter/producer Jeong Wonjo.
“The Handmaiden” movie ignited when Park read the scene in “Fingersmith” when the new maidservant grinds down the sharp tooth of her mistress, sitting in a hot bath. “When the silver thimble is grinding away at the tooth,” he said, “and the sound it makes as it grinds, the sense of the bodies they feel, and the sound of the breath they hear, the close proximity, you can see every little movement, their eyes meeting and averting and meeting again. I thought, ‘I want to see this as a film.'”
He also responded to the scene when the maidservant thinks that her plan is in motion, only to discover that she’s being packed off to an insane asylum. “The emotional shock you feel in the story is the most extreme form of how one can come across a moment of utter loss and failure when you have established a plan and you are the one proactively carrying it out,” said Park. “You’re thinking, ‘I am in charge of the situation,’ only to find out that all of that has been an illusion. You’ve been a mere puppet manipulated by other people. The sense of shock and defeat in that moment was quite universal and powerful.”
At first Park thought to shoot an English-language, Victorian-era film, until he discovered that the BBC had already done one. That’s when he decided to not only produce a Korean version set during the Japanese occupation, but also to alter the book, which had soap-opera elements, to meet his own reader’s desire of where he wanted the plot to go. These changes allowed him “to not only get the element of different classes, servants and aristocrats,” he said, “but you get the added layer of the backdrop of a society being under colonial rule.”
That also gave Park’s design team the chance to play with American and Japanese influences that came through Japan to Korea. The results are spectacular, from the fabrics of the shimmering kimonos to the lavish interiors of Lady Hideko’s mansion and its private library, parts of which were built on a soundstage and others shot on location in Japan. This is Park’s most sumptuous period film to date.
While South Korea chose not to submit this as their official Oscar entry in favor of auteur Kim Jee-woon’s more conventional World War II film “In the Age of Shadows,” “The Handmaiden” deserves serious consideration by the craft branches for its cinematography, production, and costume design.
When casting the film, for the wily servant Sook-hee the director launched a national search for an unknown. He finally found young journalism student Kim in a small theater production. For Lady Hideko, however, Park sought an established actress with the chops to handle her range of complex emotions. “We learn more and more about her and various aspects of her character are revealed,” said Park. “The actress had to be proficient enough to express all the sides of the character.”
During pre-production, he spent time with the actresses together and apart, and asked them to meet up on their own as well. “What really allows the audience to go along on the ride on this journey through the destination,” said Park, “is the the vehicle of the actresses’ performances.”
On his sets, actresses call Park the Korean word that women use to address an older woman. “My actresses feel a sense of sisterhood between them and me,” he said. “But I find this aspect of me allows me to have a good relationship with the male actors as well. Because there’s no masculine conflict about who is trying to have control over who. In other words, there’s none of the alpha-male clashes.”
The filmmaker has long been attracted to women and vengeance, ever since “Old Boy” broke out at the global box office. It upset him that the daughter in the film was left out of the key secret that is revealed at the end. “There was something quite uncomfortable left inside of me,” he said. “She was the most crucial character in the entire film, but she exits the film as the only character not privy to the entire truth. That made me decide that for my next film I was going to make a film with a female protagonist, which led me to ‘Lady Vengeance.’ I kept getting inspired to do more stories about examining strong female characters, which led me into doing this film with two strong, interesting women.”
In Korea as in America, the avant-garde cinema has paved the way for sex to be depicted more frankly on screen, as well as homosexuality, which is not exactly mainstream in Korean culture but is no longer taboo. “In Korea the depiction of sexuality isn’t any more strict compared with European countries,” Park told me. “It will earn you a higher age rating.”
Added Kim, “Like any culture, whether America or Korea, you always find sections of the society who are ardently against it. We are going through a transitional period where more and more people are accepting these ideas.” (The film was not a box-office winner in Korea.)
Among the many filmmakers influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, Park’s film technique is less intended to manipulate than to make audiences feel something. “I am playing with the audience,” he said. “Engaging in a conversation with them.”
And like the Master, Park likes to leaven his taut, violent thrillers with humor. “Rather then getting immersed into the seriousness of the moment,” he said, “sometimes I would rather keep a certain distance and infuse elements of humor into the situation. That is the more adult way to handle situations of sexuality or violence.”
For the bedroom sequences, he used precisely choreographed story boards. In one sex scene, the maidservant is astonished at the inventive lovemaking of her mistress, who she expected to be less experienced. “Where did you learn all this?” she asks. “You are so good at this, you must be naturally talented at lovemaking.” The audience is privy to the knowledge that Hideko has been privately reading erotic literature to a group of intellectual men.
“She almost has a doctorate on the subject matter,” said Park. “Because it’s humor that derives from the situation, it’s not simply funny, but has a bitter aftertaste to it.”