Meet the Korean master of extreme cinema

We spoke to Park Chan-Wook, who sets ultraviolence aside with his new lesbian love story The Handmaiden.


The Handmaiden

Doing an interview with an interpreter isn’t that unusual, especially in festival contexts where the interviewee has to line up countless Q&As in one day. But I still wasn’t prepared for what Park Chan-wook’s interpreter told me. “He has a sore back, so he’ll be walking around,” he explained. Indeed, the Korean master of extreme cinema was pacing around the hotel room, at one point dropping behind the bed and popping back up having excavated a magnum of red wine (!) from who knows where. (The red wine went untouched.)

Chan-wook was at TIFF to promote his latest film, The Handmaiden, which opens in Montreal on Oct. 28. It’s somewhat of a change of pace for Chan-wook, best known for brutal thrillers like Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but not dissimilar to his English-language debut, Stoker. Chan-wook transposed the action of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s, the story having already been told in the original Victorian setting by a BBC miniseries.

Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a pickpocket and petty thief who lives amongst a bigger community of thieves that also includes Count Fujiwara (Ha Jong-woo). The Count has cooked up a plan that sees him stealing vast riches from the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) but in order to do that, he needs someone on the inside. Sook-hee therefore gets hired as the Lady’s handmaiden in an attempt to convince her that Count Fujiwara is not only a worthwhile suitor, but the ONLY worthwhile suitor. The problem is, Sook-hee finds herself drawn to Lady Hideko as well.

Park Chan-Wook
Park Chan-wook

“My impetus for changing the setting of the film was very passive,” says Chan-wook, citing a previous BBC miniseries adaptation as one reason. “It was my producer’s idea to transpose it to the period where Korea was occupied by Japan and I took his cue. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a stroke of genius. Already we have two women who are divided by their differences in class. For their love to transcend it is a beautiful thing, but if it takes place in Korea between a Korean woman and a Japanese woman at that time, you’re adding even more barriers between the two and making it even more of a hurdle, making their love even more noble.”

There’s also the question of the male gaze. Chan-wook isn’t the first male director to shoot a lesbian sex scene, of course, but he might be the first major filmmaker to do so since Abdellatif Kechiche came under considerable fire for the sex scenes in La vie d’Adèle (aka Blue Is the Warmest Colour). The Handmaiden has some commonalities with that film — namely the acrobatic scissoring scenes.

“Is that right? I didn’t realize that La vie d’Adèle had received such pushback from the lesbian community! If I had known that, I would’ve thought twice about making this movie!” he laughs. “Maybe I chose the wrong person to advise me during the scriptwriting stage, because I was writing the script with my writing partner, who is a heterosexual woman. One of her best friends happens to be a lesbian, and we were seeking her advice and showing her each draft of the script, and she said that scissors are the best position. ‘You have to retain these scenes in your script, otherwise the sex scenes will be so bland!’ She was adamant about it! Of course, I haven’t spoken with every member of the lesbian community, but the ones I did speak to were very receptive to the film.”

Those expecting the violent thrills of Chan-wook’s best known work might be thrown off by The Handmaiden, which is a long and sumptuously mounted epic that only gets twisted and violent in the third act. I ask Chan-wook if he feels this is a conscious move away from his past work, and whether he feels a responsibility to audiences to uphold any part of his reputation.


“Well, it really depends on the project,” he chuckles. “It’s entirely possible that I’d return to the kind of films that I’m notorious for. First of all, I was uncomfortable with the fact that female members of the audience tended to find my previous films… well, they didn’t like them. They didn’t want to see them! Ever since Lady Vengeance, I’ve been making a conscious effort to make films that women might want to see. The Handmaiden is probably the pinnacle of that sort of film.”

“I move towards what I feel drawn to at any given moment,” he continues. “I’m certainly not trying to make my decisions based on living up to anyone’s expectations. I’m not sure what it is that draws me to a specific project. Is it because I’m getting older? I’m not sure. But in that sense, it makes me all the more curious to see what people’s reactions will be when they find out what my next project is going to be. Maybe it has to do with the reaction of western audiences. I’ve been asked this same question since Mr. Vengeance: why are Korean films so violent? Maybe it’s affected me subconsciously to make films that are less violent.” ■

The Handmaiden opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 28