Renowned primarily for his contemporary classic Oldboy, Park Chan-wook has just crafted one of his very best yet, with the sumptuous, electric thriller The Handmaiden. When the film played at the London Film Festival we were fortunate enough to be granted some time with this ingenious auteur, to discuss this indelible piece of cinema, which owes a lot to the success of the filmmaker’s seminal piece – which helped establish South Korea as a shining light in world cinema.
Sat down next to his translator, Park took a somewhat more modest view, claiming it’s the work of other directors from his homeland which have allowed for the industry to flourish, and see budgets for films such as The Handmaiden now be available to filmmakers.
“I may have been somewhat responsible for Korean films being discovered outside of Korea, but in terms of filmmakers who impacted the whole industry back home so it could grow, there are many more directors responsible for that, more than me,” he smiled.
The film is based upon the novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters – but Park changed the setting to Korea when under Japanese colonial rule – and it’s a period of time the director feels it’s now possible to explore through cinema, thanks to the aforementioned increase in resources.
“Compared with how important that period in Korean history was, so much so it’s still having an affect on Korean society in contemporary times, there haven’t been many films that take place in that time period,” he continued. “For the simple reason that to recreate the period on screen it takes a lot of money, and now you see more of these films being made and that is because the industry has grown over the years and has reached a point where films of that budget can be made, and have a chance to do well in the box office.”
Perhaps the fact The Handmaiden is a film that Park is making at this stage in his career has enriched the material, for his two protagonists are female, played by Min-hee Kim, and Tae-ri Kim, and he believes that as men get older they become more in touch with their feminine side.
“Men do grow old and get in touch with their feminine side, and you could say this process of discovery and embracing your feminine side means that you are maturing as a person,” he said. “When you’re younger you tend to become embarrassed by such a thought. A true problem with contemporary society is that men are brought up to believe that getting in touch with their feminine side is an embarrassing thing.”
The film is being described by many as an erotic thriller – and Park has had to be careful in his depiction of the naked female body, wanting to avoid any sense of gratuitousness.
“When you are exposing the naked female body to the audience, you always have to take extreme care because in pop culture nowadays, the female body has become so objectified. Especially in a film like this, which is setting out to effectively criticise the male gaze and male exploitation of women.”
The Handmaiden is the second consecutive film to be sexually charged, following his first deviation in Hollywood with Stoker, starring Mia Wasikowska – and Park explains that this return to Korea has been seamlessly completed.
“In the time I went away to do Stoker and then I came back, Korea has started to organise unions, which meant guidelines in terms of working hours and so forth, and a lot of directors were having difficulty in adapting to the new rules, but for me I didn’t have any problem, because I had the experience working on Stoker.”
As to where this innovative visionary will work next – he explains that he’s not concerned by the location nor industry – he is driven by one thing and one thing only; the story.
“To me it isn’t so important where my films are made, what matters for me at the end of the day is the story. If there’s a good story it doesn’t matter if I have to go Japan or China to make a film. In any case, the story is the most important thing for me, and depending on where the good story is, I’ll be there.”
The Handmaiden is released on April 14th and you can read our review of the film here.