The LRM Interview with Park Chan-Wook on The Handmaiden

For more than twenty years, director Park Chan-Wook has been South Korea’s primary export when it comes to cinema, paving the way for many other Korean filmmakers to get discovered in the states. Oldboy may still be Director Park’s grandest masterpiece, but he’s created some gorgeous films since then.

Director Park’s latest film is The Handmaiden, a period thriller about two young women—Korean Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), who comes to work as the handmaid for the young secluded Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Lee) in the large estate of the latter’s wealthy book-collecting uncle (Cho Jin-woong), who has a lot of odd quirks. As the two women become closer, they form a bond, but Hideko doesn’t realize that Sookee was sent there to help set her up to be seduced by The Count (Ha Jung-woo), actually a con-man in cahoots with Sookee, who changes her mind about tricking Hideko once they become intimate.

Loosely adapted from Sarah Water’s novel Fingersmith, it’s a gorgeous and sometimes vexing period film that examines the relationship between these four characters from three different perspectives, so that you learn the initial story presented isn’t the entire story.

LRM sat down with Director Park a few weeks back for a lengthy interview, done with the help of his interpreter, and we got a great in-depth look into the inner-workings of one of Korea’s top filmmakers. 

LRM: “The Handmaiden” is another wonderful movie and it also seems very different, because I’m not sure you’ve ever done something that was so obviously a period piece.

Park Chan-Wook: That’s right.

LRM: What inspired you about “Fingersmith” to make this film?

Park: Maybe it is that I like this kind of structure. JSA (Joint Security Area) was no different, where you look at one story from one perspective, and you look at the same story from another person’s perspective. And Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has a trace of that sort of structure as well, but I wasn’t really as aware or conscious of it while I was reading the book. I simply thought, “This will make a fun movie, and I really want to do it.”

LRM: I hadn’t seen “JSA” in quite a few years, and completely forgot that you had used that structure before until I saw it again recently.

Park: Right. It is when people such as you point out that, “Yeah, you’ve done this before,” that I suddenly become aware that I’ve done this before. 

LRM: Movie journalists probably watch your movies over and over again whereas you move onto the next movie once you’re done, maybe that’s why.

Park: That’s exactly it, yeah.

LRM: When you were working with your co-writer, Seo-kyung Chung, were you talking about using this structure as you were developing it?

Park: I told her that I wanted to emphasize the structure that’s already in the original novel, and I wanted to emphasize it more. Even though the second half of the film veers away quite a lot from the original novel, I wanted to make sure I retained that change in perspective in different parts of the story and really take that fun and make sure I retained that in the film as well. 

LRM: Your sense of humor is something we’ve seen in many of your movies, and it’s always amazing that it seems to work with English-speaking audiences as well as it does Korean audiences. Can you talk about how you decide on how much humor to put into a movie like this or “JSA”?

Park: Well, when you think about it, you can say that it’s quite a difficult thing, because humor is the one thing that you find is very difficult to go over the barriers of culture and language. For instance, French comedies are very difficult for Korean audiences to enjoy, so to a degree, you need to put in a conscious effort that the humor translates. The kind of effort that I putin is to make sure that it’s universal humor, and if it’s based on human nature—if we get close to what’s fundamentally human—I suppose that helps attain that universality of humor. Compared with all the other previous films, especially with this film, it takes on a different kind of form, if you like. Now, because I’m dealing with the subject of homosexuality, to have the audience approach the film in a more friendly way, to bring them in in a more organic way, humor is utilized as well. For instance, the kind of humor in the “Vengeance” trilogy at first came out of placing distance between the audience and what’s happening. The kind of humor that is found in this film is the other way around. It’s bringing the audience in closer to what is happening.

Let’s take the first bed scene, for instance. Even though this is love-making between people of same sex, all the way throughout it is cute and it is funny, and when you go along that ride, for the audience, you just look at these two women and find them beautiful and adorable and organically, you find yourself being drawn to their love story.

LRM: To follow that up, is this a conscious thing while you’re writing, while you’re on set or even in the editing, knowing you want that humorous moment in the movie. Is that from the very beginning or as you’re working on getting the movie into post-production?

Park: Mostly, the humor is infused during the script-writing process, but there are sometimes cases where these moments of humor are found during the process of shooting. For instance, if you found any moments where you can laugh when you see the Count, a lot of it is created by the actor himself. He’s a guy with such a great humor that in trying to build a character together and have him give the performance on set, we shape these humorous moments together. And voice-overs that you find humorous, those are the ones that I found during the editing stage. With these voice-overs, some of them were already in the script, but a lot of it was newly written during the editing stage. 

LRM: Going into the casting, the actor who played the Count has done a lot of films in Korea, but you’ve never worked with him before. For Sookee, you found a brand-new actress that isn’t well-known. Can you talk about working with actors you’ve worked with many times before or trying to find new actors and trying to decide whether to go for someone new or a well-known Korean actor or someone you’ve worked with before?

Park: Well, I have no intention to say that, “Okay, I’m going to change everyone and work with people I’ve never worked with before.” It wasn’t a change of guards or me turning over a new leaf in terms of working with actors. Just that with Ha Jung-woo, he just happens to be the most commercially viable and prolific actor working in Korea at the moment. Not only that, but there’s a mischievous quality about him, and I thought he would bring that to the table and turn The Count into a more relatable or human character. I saw Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, and Uncle Kouzuki’s character is played by a guy called Cho Jin-woong was in that film, and he had to perform between Choi Min-sik from Oldboy and Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong, he was a relative newcomer back when he was doing Nameless Gangster. When he had to share a scene with those two, he could really stand his ground, and Cho Jin-woong was able to shine even with those two. I thought that was great, and I remember him from that movie pretty well.

When it came to the character of Hideko, Kim Min-hee was the first person that came to my mind. What was that? She is elegant, and she is delicate and nuanced in her performance, and I contacted her as the first person to send the script to, and within two or three days, she called and said, “I’ll do it.” Looking at her performance when she was a newcomer, looking at her first feature films and looking at her performance in this film, throughout the history, there’s probably never been an example of such evolution. Now she was somebody who wasn’t interested in acting at all. When you see her first films, she was someone who was working as a model but just as a way of working in Korea, she just came into acting. She gradually found interest in acting, and she became more and more mesmerized by the craft, so that in those five years, she has made such progress and now, her performance in this film is exquisite.

Now, Kim Tae-ri, she’s a newcomer, but she has worked on the stage for around three years, so she was a pro, but this was her first feature film, and we found her through an audition process.

LRM: To follow that up, when he’s writing with Ms. Chung, is he thinking about any of these actors? He has to worry about whether he can get them. Chances are that if they’re available, he can get them, but does thinking about actors while writing the characters help in that process?

Park: No, not at all, and I try not to be like that when I’m writing, because it means I’m limiting the characters.

LRM: But there has to be a period of crossing over from writer to director and producer, so is that when he starts thinking about that? He also mentioned having a commercially-viable cast and I wondered whether that’s still a consideration after so many movies.

Park: Of course, of course, you have to think about this. This world of making commercial feature films is like a jungle out there. It’s survival of the fittest.  If you’re a filmmaker like me, if you have one failure, you’re probably able to get away with it, but two failures in a row will put you in a very precarious situation, especially when we’re talking about a film like The Handmaiden where the budget, for Korea, was pretty high, you do have to pay particular attention to how your film does at the box office.

LRM: I feel like the acting pool in South Korea, maybe ten years ago was kind of small, but it’s like Hollywood now where everyone in Seoul wants to be an actor because there’s so many movies being made. I’m not sure if that’s true or not.

Park: Definitely, there’s a big pool of great talents in Korea, so much so that it almost makes me feel like comparatively, there’s a very small pool of good directors. It almost makes me feel as if only we had more good directors, they’d be able to better use the great talent pool that we have and make more films and make better films. Maybe all Koreans have some actor-like quality in them, perhaps. 

LRM: It’s interesting you say that because from an American perspective, it feels like every Korean filmmaker whose films get over here, are the best. Here, we have thousands of filmmakers and only a dozen or two great ones. There seems to be a lot better directors coming out of Korea, at least from our perspective.

Park: (laughs) I don’t really think so. Maybe it’s just the fact that of all the Korean movies that come out every year, only a handful of great ones are introduced to you guys.

LRM: That’s probably what it is.

Park: How funny it is to see even in the most pathetic Korean film, there’s at least one or two great performances in it. Usually it’s in a supporting role, but you see at least one of two movies with great acting.

LRM: Getting back to “The Handmaiden,” one of the interesting aspects is the poor Korean handmaiden going to live with the wealthy Japanese collector and his niece, and I was curious how that idea would play to a Japanese audience vs. a Korean audience. Would that play very differently because of the social gap between them?

Park: This is a rather complicated matter. So Hideko is Japanese. Her father was rich and her mother is from a noble family, so she’s of noble birth, but her mother side is noble family but this family has fallen in terms of the size of their wealth. Because her mother’s noble family has gone into ruin, this family’s two daughters—Hideko’s mother and her aunt—they were married off into rich families. Hideko’s mother was married to a rich man from Japan, and her aunt was married off to a rich Korean man. As you say, I also am very fascinated to find out how the Japanese audience would react. I imagine they wouldn’t react differently from Koreans, and the Japanese release is already next year, and I can’t wait to find out how they react.  For the Japanese audience, I would imagine that their perspective on this film could be quite different. The thing about it is that the Japanese colonialism and their imperialism is depicted in a negative light, but at the same time, the Japanese costumes you find in the film, for instance, are presented as very, very beautiful. I wonder how the Japanese might look at the film and how they might think about it. Oh, and of course, one of the protagonists is a Japanese woman.

LRM: I was curious about the library set you built for the movie, because you have three different perspectives and we see that location from those different places, so I was curious about building that, destroying that, and how you approached that particular set.

Park: It’s one of the core spaces in this film, and it’s a set into which we put the most amount of money and time right from the beginning, when we were trying to settle on the concept for the space. It took the most amount of consideration, and it took all three of us—me, my DP and the production designer—we’d sit down together and try to come up with the overall concept for the space. The exterior is Japanese, and as you enter the building and go inside, you’re met with two doors, which represents how secretive the space is and closed off to the outside world. Entering inside, the first impression you get is that it’s a European library. There is a quality to it that makes it feel you’re inside a library inside a castle somewhere, but go deeper into it, and you’re met with this Tatami-matted floor, and when you enter into this area, you have to take off your shoes, even if you’re wearing a tuxedo. And when you take off those Tatami mats and you fill the space with some water and sand and plants, it’s suddenly turned into a Japanese garden. What Japanese gardens are with water, sand, the stones and the trees, usually it’s a representation of the universe. Now, this garden inside the library, it signifies Kozuki’s world, his realm and his universe. Now, if you lift up the Tatami mat, it switches into the furthest most corner, it reveals a staircase leading you down to the basement where it contains the most secretive, most dirty, most violent aspects of his library. What connects you with the Western-looking bookshelves down to the Tatami-matted area is the stairs that also act as seats for the audience. If you take a careful look, the area between the entrance and these steps is filled with these bookcases, but the corridor between the bookcases is on an angle downwards.

There was a pragmatic reason why it was on an angle—it’s so that when Sookee enters into this room, the audience can see into the entire space, but at the same time, that slant on the floor and the steps, they’re designed that way so that the entire area feels like a theater, and once you cross the Tatami mat floor on the other side, you find the stage.  It is a stage, but at the same time, it looks like what’s called a “Tokonoma” in the Japanese architecture, and what Tokonoma is an area rich Japanese people would have in their houses, so they can invite their guest to Tokonoma and have tea ceremonies. What they would do is have the tea on the Tatami mat area of the floor, but what goes on in the Tokonoma, the staging area, would usually be flowers or banzai trees, something they can admire or appreciate when they have tea. They would also have the scroll of today’s topic of conversation.

Summing up, what I’m saying is that Hideko, in these reading sessions, she’s an actress on the stage, but at the same time, in a very well presented vase of flowers which you place on the Tokonoma.

LRM: Last time we spoke was when you came to America to make “Stoker” and I wondered how you felt about that experience, and if you were aware of the resurgence where Korean films like “The Wailing” and “Train to Busan” are doing really big business here. How do you feel about doing films in America vs. doing movies for Korean audiences and then American audiences discovering them?

Park: What I have experienced personally from the experience of making a film in America is that I was able to be faster during production, compared to the last time I worked on the Korean film Thirst, I have been to America and back. In that time, in the Korean industry, a lot of work guidelines came into place, and it required productions to be more aware of working hours and shoot days. It just meant that it would require more budget to schedule more shoot days. I was able to be workquite fast during production, and it helped me grapple with this changing environment. With other Korean films, they’re not films, so I don’t have much to say about them.

LRM: But it seems like American audiences are more open to Korean films than they were, maybe five years ago.

Park: It’s a great thing and Na Hong-jin of The Wailing is going to become a big director, and I would urge you to go see The Truth Beneath.  

The Handmaiden is now playing in select cities, including the newly-opened Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn. You can find out where it’s playing and buy tickets here.

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