The Handmaiden, Korean director Park Chan-wook’s Gothic lesbian tale of romance, revenge and (light) bondage, is the kind of electrifying indulgence only he can make. The film is a loose adaptation of Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ 2002 thriller Fingersmith, about a female pickpocket who poses as a maid for a wealthy lady in order to help a charismatic male thief win her heart and fortune — only to find herself falling for her mistress. Park (whose work includes such twisted films as Oldboy, Stoker and Lady Vengeance) transposes the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea and brings to it both his elegant, heightened style and his deep understanding of grief, loyalty and deception. The result is a touching epic about an elaborate con job in which characters set each other up in ever more ornate ways while navigating volatile matters of the heart. The director talked to us about what drew him to the story, some of the more dramatic changes he made and how he likes to marry form and content.
Was there a particular moment in the novel that made you decide to turn it into a film?
You could say it was the scene where the maid uses a silver thimble to file down the sharp tooth of her lady. It’s actually quite early in the book. That was the moment I said to myself, “I really want to see that on the big screen. I want to see that visualized.” After the film was finished, I had a conversation with the author, Sarah Waters, and I asked her about that particular moment. She said it comes from her own experience — her memory of her grandmother, who would use a thimble and file down her sharp tooth. Maybe that’s why it’s full of such intimacy and warmth.
Why did you set it in Japanese-occupied Korea? Was it just an issue of production realities, or something else?
The first reason was that I found out there was a BBC miniseries already made from the novel. That actually took a lot of steam out of the idea for me. Syd Lim, who produced this film with me, suggested we move the setting to Japan, so it would still be around a similar time as the original novel, but feel different. That’s when I got the idea of moving the location. By deciding to set the story around Korea’s occupation by Japan, I was able to gain some unexpected things. It enabled me to place yet another obstacle between the two women in their process of finding love. Not only are they from different classes, they are also from two different nationalities who have animosity towards each other.
Second, it allowed me to imbue in the villain another element. Now, he is a Japanese collaborator. Through this character, I could portray how modernism made its way into Korea. People who make up the ruling class of Korean society — the so-called intellectuals — have been drawn to this idea of colonialism throughout history. In the old days, it used to be the Chinese they worshipped, and then it changed to the Japanese, then to the Americans. Only the subject of their worship changes. There have been a number of films in Korea dealing with this era of Japanese occupation, and these characters tend to be depicted as being after money and status. I wanted to take it one step further and show the collaborators who are more dangerous — the ones who worship strength.
This is something we see with many elites in other countries. Is it a kind of self-loathing, or a classist impulse, perhaps?
Of course there’s an element of class, but in Korea I still believe it originates from the idea that might is right, or might is good. And that leads them to think that they themselves are not right and not good, because they are weak. So they feel a sense of inferiority. This in turn leads them to divide their own society into certain classes, the way Kouzuki is doing in the film. He believes that everything that has to do with Korea and Korean values is inferior to Japan, and looks down at his own heritage.
For these kinds of people to get together by themselves and worship whoever they worship — this is not the problem. It’s their prerogative and they are free to think what they will. It becomes a problem when, because of their beliefs, they not only consider the sections of society who don’t follow the same things as inferior, but they also try to force these ideas on them.
I’m intrigued by the way that the book and the film diverge, particularly in the second half. The climax of the film is very different.
It’s for a simple and childish reason. When I was reading the book, I was just like a daytime soap opera audience: “Those two have to get together! Come on! And that villain has to be punished!” So I really rooted for these two women to become one team and form an alliance and really punish those two men. That’s the only way I wanted this story to turn out. But the novel didn’t end that way! It has its own reasons for going down its road, and the book is a great work of literature. But for me, I basically had to make my own fan fiction.
What did Sarah Waters say when you told her you wanted to change the story? Did you tell her in advance?
Instead of asking me to do anything different, she simply said that it was a great script, but noted that it did veer from the original novel quite a bit. So [she suggested that] it would be more appropriate to say it was “inspired by Fingersmith.”
I’ve noticed this is probably one of the happiest endings in your filmography — especially since many of your previous films have tackled the corrosive nature of revenge.
The most important aspect of this film is the love story between the two women. And thinking about Hideko’s childhood, I thought that she is a character who is very deserving of this kind of ending — someone who deserves the gift of a happy ending.
The film is, in some ways, a fiction about a fiction. You’ve often had characters who were the victims of elaborate plots. But usually, you wait until the end to reveal this. In The Handmaiden, you will intercut between someone performing an action and their planning the action — almost like a heist movie. But then, later, you reveal that there’s yet another fiction being created by showing another perspective on their actions — another twist. And watching all these twists and turns, I can’t help but be reminded of the role of the filmmaker. The whole film feels like it’s a comment on your position as filmmaker and storyteller — as someone who stages elaborate fictions, gets people involved and games out what will work and what won’t.
You’ve managed to articulate something that I myself wasn’t able to quite tidy up in my head. I believe it owes a lot to the structure of the film, which is divided up into three parts. We see the film from one person’s perspective, and it changes into another person’s perspective in part two. And through that process, we reveal information we weren’t privy to before. In the case of what happens on the wedding night, we only see that in part three. So it makes the audience put the pieces of the puzzle together, and that in itself is another creative process.
You can look at it from another angle, too. Uncle Kouzuki is a character who is obsessed about stories. But he takes as much pleasure out of imagining what goes on inside the heads of the people listening to the stories. There’s something about him that is kind of like a stage director who puts on these reading sessions. [Note: In the film, Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki makes her read aloud from his collection of erotica to groups of men.] When Hideko herself is giving the readings during these sessions, she is imagining what is going on inside the heads of all these men who are listening to her — she’s imagining the imagination, sort of like how you say that this is a fiction about a fiction. She even sees the whipping that she herself is doing inside one of these people’s imaginations.
And near the end, Uncle Kouzuki constantly requests that the Count continue with the story and tell him about his wedding night with Hideko. When we do see the wedding night, we see Hideko get under the covers, take off the gloves and throw them out — and then there’s a freeze frame. Kouzuki says, “Why do you stop now? Why do you stop at this moment? You must tell me the rest of the story.” The very use of that cinematic technique — of freezing the frame right there — that in itself is saying that this is a story, and it indicates that the Count’s story has just stopped here.
What dictates the style of a film? The Handmaiden is certainly very stylized, like all of your films, but to what extent do the story itself or the ideas in it determine the aesthetic of the film? Or is it just that you have a particular way you like to make movies and you seek out material to match?
You could say I’m a formalist. That’s not to say that form is the most important value you should pursue. But for me, form and substance cannot be separated. Let me give you an example. For any given shot, whether the camera should be pushing into the character or stay where it is and just observe, that kind of decision is not merely made on the merits of the rhythm of the film or whether the shot will look cool or not. Rather, it is the result of my asking the question, “Does it have artistic, aesthetic necessity?” A lot of people will say that my films involve lots of dramatic camera movements. But when you see Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the camera does not move so much. And even in The Handmaiden, there are many moments where the camera remains still. When the two women are waiting for the Count to come in for the first painting lesson, we watch them in long take, from a distance, and we are very still.
I’ve noticed a lot of visual emphasis on doors in this film, which echoes the theme of borders and boundaries being crossed and taboos being broken. But on a practical level, it also works with the idea of that mansion being a place of great secrets.
That is very much intended. And for example, the way into the library — there are two doors. And when Hideko and Sookee flee from the mansion, they have to open layers and layers of doors to get out.
Did your experiences making Stoker — coming to the U.S. and working in the Hollywood system — change you as a director?
The experience of having to engage in a conversation with a studio was very unfamiliar to me back then. I was a bit surprised by it. But the result of that process, I was happy with — so much so that, when I came back to Korea to make The Handmaiden, I tried to apply that a little bit inside my own head. I would ask myself, “Director Park, why do you need this here? Don’t you think it’s lacking something here? Why this strange moment in the scene?” And I would have these arguments with myself and answer my own questions — to determine if this was something that I definitely needed artistically. So, if there was something weird, I’d go through this self-filtering process inside my own head. And if the weird thing remained at the end of that, then I knew it was the kind of weird that deserves a place in the film.