In adapting Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set crime novel Fingersmith to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, director Park Chan-wook tells Alistair Harkness how The Handmaiden allowed him to examine colonialism, in addition to the tender love story at the heart of the twisted drama
Park Chan-wook has made films featuring involuntary organ removal, hammer fights and various appendage-lacerating uses of scissors and pruning shears, so when the director of the South Korean cult hits OldBoy and Lady Vengeance says he was attracted to his new film because of a scene featuring a thimble and a sharp tooth, you’d be forgiven for fearing the worst. But in The Handmaiden, a sumptuous, somewhat kinky erotic thriller set in Japanese-occupied Korea, the aforementioned scene is actually a source of extreme tenderness. Featuring a streetwise maid named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) using a thimble to file down the jagged molar of her cloistered Japanese mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), it’s the point at which the film’s two female protagonists begin to fall for one another other. “I thought it was an exquisite moment,” says Park via his translator. “It was the first moment I liked in the novel.”
He’s referring to the film’s source text, Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ Man Booker nominated Victorian crime saga, which was previously adapted as a BBC mini-series, but which Park has now transformed into a typically virtuoso piece of cinema. Making bold use of a three-act, multi-perspective structure to transform its triple-crossing plot into an outré, highly charged love story, the film zeroes in on Sook-hee and Hideko as they strive to liberate themselves from their male oppressors, a particularly hideous bunch that includes a lecherous Korean con artist pretending to be a Japanese nobleman called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and Hideko’s wealthy, porn-obsessed, Japan-worshipping uncle, Kouzuki (Jo Jing-woong).
Both men rank alongside the most deranged creeps to be found in Park’s previous work and the director certainly delights in holding male sexual perversity up for ridicule, exposing its more hideous forms here in the bizarre men-only book-group Uncle Kouzuki convenes to appreciate his vast collection of “erotic” literature. But Kouzuki isn’t a cipher for the filmmaker and Park has taken care to retain the feminist core of Waters’ book, presenting the love scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko in ways that are explicit and sensuous without succumbing to male-gaze leeriness.
“That was all considered at the scriptwriting stage,” confirms Park of his approach. “I was paying special attention to this issue because I wanted to make sure that the actresses performing it would know exactly what positions they would be in and what angles would be shown.” Storyboarding the pivotal sex scene in great detail, he sought his stars’ feedback early on to make sure they were comfortable with everything. Such collaboration is important. The last male director to make a high-profile lesbian love story in such an explicit manner was Abdellatif Kechiche, who had to weather a very public backlash against his Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour when star Lea Seydoux subsequently complained in interviews that doing multiple takes of simulated sex for hours at a time made her feel “like a prostitute”.
By contrast, Park says he didn’t want to be greedy when it came to shooting the love scenes in The Handmaiden. “I’d do two takes and, if I felt I had it, I’d move on to the next shot.” He also banned men from the set; operated the camera remotely, and built a private room on the soundstage replete with dim lighting, candles, music and wine to make it easier for his stars to relax between set-ups. For a filmmaker who made the star of OldBoy eat a live octopus, that counts as progress.
But there’s a lot more than love, lust and the kinky proclivities of dirty old men going on in The Handmaiden. Just as the Victorian setting of the source novel gave Waters scope to explore the double standards of British society, in transposing the story to 1930s Korea, Park was able to layer in commentary about his native country’s complex relationship with colonialism. “It was a transitional period,” he says. “There was still this class structure in Korean society, but at the same time Korea was going through modernisation, which made its way in through Imperial Japanese culture in a very violent manner. People like Uncle Kouzoki are Korean, but they worship Japan and worship European things. They’re colonial lackeys and amid the ruling class, colonial lackeys have always played an important role in Korean society and it’s still a valid criticism of Korean society to this day. They used to worship the Chinese. Then for 36 years it was the Japanese. Now it’s the Americans.”
Of course, Park isn’t averse to appropriating western culture when it suits him. The Handmaiden is based on a British novel; his 2009 vampire movie Thirst was a loose adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, and prior to this film he went off to Hollywood to make his English-language debut with Stoker, a deliciously dark contemporary-set gothic melodrama starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska. Though he returned home to make The Handmaiden, working in America actually turned out to be a positive experience. “Fortunately, the Americans I met were good people and the executives from the studio had a genuine love for cinema. Because they shared the same goal as me, no matter how exhausting the process, no matter how heated the conversation could get, it all ended up being very productive. And the good thing I took from the experience was that I learned how to work at a much speedier pace. I shot this film in half the time.”
The Handmaiden isn’t a rejection of his experiences in America, then, and nor does Park think of it as a revenge movie. Yes, there’s a revenge motif in it, but it has little in common with the extreme acts of retribution meted out in earlier work such as the aforementioned OldBoy and Lady Vengeance. “The kind of revenge I’ve been interested in exploring in the past has no benefit,” he says. “The protagonists in those films are in situations where what’s been lost can’t be brought back, so they’re investing everything they have in getting revenge when there’s nothing to be gained. In The Handmaiden, what they’re doing definitely has a benefit. The punishment they deal out to the men can be justified.”
The Handmaiden is on selected release from Friday 14 April.