Park Chan-wook’s new film The Handmaiden, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is a beautifully constructed erotic thriller. While the book sets the story in Victorian England, Park establishes the tale in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Returning to Korea after making his English language debut with Stoker, Park tells the story of Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim), a petty thief and master pick pocket, who conspires with a man known as “The Count” (Jung-woo Ha), an accomplished con artist, to swindle the fortune of a wealthy Japanese Princess, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim).
Posing as the Princess’s handmaiden, Sook-hee moves into Hideko’s massive colonial estate, but after meeting Hideko’s strict and perverted uncle (Jin-woong Jo), who forces his niece to read erotic literature to a small group of wealthy men, Sook-hee’s feelings toward Hideko evolve. The two grow closer in unexpected ways, reaching an intense and at times jaw-dropping level of intimacy—and yet, all is not what it seems. Teeming with erotica, violence, double-crossing and perversion, The Handmaiden is a taut thriller underpinned by a message of love.
Paste found Park Chan-wook at this year’s Fantastic Fest to discuss his filmmaking, working methods and the cultural impact the film has had so far.
Paste Magazine: What drives you to make these kinds of big films?
Park Chan-wook: The four members of my family are my biggest drive—putting bread on the table. If not, I might have kept making films, but they would have been smaller, more personal films. Or, I might have been putting more time into my photography or on the experimental kind of work I’ve done with my younger brother.
Paste: What drew you to The Handmaiden?
Park: When it comes to this particular film, as it was with Oldboy, the producer, Syd Lim, brought the material to me. I started reading, and when I got to the first love scene between the two central characters, Susan and Maud in Fingersmith (Sook-hee and Hideko in the film), they’re in bed together and Hideko is asking, “What do men want? What do you think it is that the count wants?”, and Sook-hee says, “I’m sure the count would love something like this.” This sort of [dynamic] between them where they are hiding their true feelings, the love they have for each other: They are hiding their sexual desires, and lying to each other. But, they’re engaged in this sort of role-playing where they are trying to enact what it would be that men would want in this situation. And I thought that was really funny.
Paste: As a male filmmaker making a love story between two women, what measures did you take to ensure you were telling the story authentically and not objectifying the characters?
Park: While making the film, I constantly asked myself, “Am I just making this film for the male audience so that they can gawk at two naked women? Is that the kind of film that I’m making, a movie to make a buck where I can show some nude bodies? Is it something the audience will see that way?” I constantly asked myself and checked myself.
My co-writer for this film was a woman and we went through each line in the script and I checked with her whether she found anything uncomfortable, and whether she thought the female audience would find anything uncomfortable, to put her in the female audience’s shoes and imagine the film. After the film was finished, I sought advice from feminists to seek their view on whether there was something to be criticized about the film.
Fortunately, those who I sought advice from, they unanimously said that there’s nothing to fault about this film from their standpoint.
Paste: You’re known for having some of the highest grossing films in South Korea, and at the same time, South Korea has kind of a climate of homophobia, from what I understand. How do you think this film will affect the culture, and has there been any backlash because of it?
Park: There wasn’t any backlash from the public. It is true that there are many conservative people in Korea, especially among the older generation, and there are fundamental Christians in that particular generation who might be displeased [with] the film. But, there isn’t much backlash, not to the degree that I considered when I set out [to make] this film. The reaction to the film has been uniformly good. There are so many people who are in love with this film, and people understand that it is a love story between two characters whose romance has bloomed despite having met each other through a relationship where they’re supposed to deceive each other.
But, there are obstacles that they overcome to arrive at this great romance. The audience roots for these characters, especially when it comes to Hideko—she is a victim of a violent gaze. This makes the audience organically sympathize with her and her love, and the audience doesn’t really question it at all.
Paste: The book sets the story in England. What was the motivation behind moving it to Japanese-occupied Korea?
Park: I was willing to make this faithful to the original novel, but then I realized that the BBC had already made a miniseries. So, I decided to move this to a Japanese-occupied Korea, and it actually enriched the story. It brought more to the story. It added another layer to it.
Paste: As a filmmaker who has made films in South Korea as well as Hollywood, what do you see as the biggest difference in the process, and do you plan to make another Hollywood film?
Park: With a U.S. production, the studio has to have more say about the filmmaking process, and what’s decisively different for me was that in the U.S., I had to shoot quickly. But, with Korea, after having done Stoker and having come back to do The Handmaiden, compared with the time when I was doing Thirst, it’s become quite different. It’s changed a lot, and it’s become very similar to the U.S. So, fundamentally, it’s become very similar. Because of American films, or English-to-English films, there are a number of them in the development stage, but because none of them are financed yet, there isn’t much to speak of at this stage.