Seoul-born Park Chan-wook is one of Asia’s most successful filmmakers. After his third film J.S.A.: Joint Security Area became a huge hit locally, he gained international fame for his ‘vengeance’ trilogy—notably with 2003’s Oldboy, which won the Grand Prize of the Jury in Cannes. Since then, he’s made his English-language debut with 2013’s Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman. Now he returns to his native Korea with The Handmaiden, a beautifully crafted thriller about a mistress and her servant adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith.
The Handmaiden feels like an erotic thriller, a genre that has been overlooked of late. Did you want to revive it?
Is that so? I haven’t seen a lot of recent films then! It’s not that I was thinking, ‘I haven’t seen a lot of erotic thrillers nowadays, so why don’t I do one?’ It wasn’t that. I just made a film I wanted to make and it happened to be this film.
Had you seen the 2005 BBC serial based on Waters’ book Fingersmith?
No. I only found out there was a BBC mini-series after I’d finished reading the book and after I’d decided, ‘I really want to make this into a film.’ So I immediately saw the series and it was a bit of a deflating thing for me because, here I was, all excited about turning this into a film, and they’d already made a mini-series. So, that’s when I decided, ‘I’ll adapt it for Korea.’
You relocated it to 1930s Korea specifically. Why?
I needed to find a time in recent history where this idea of different classes in society still existed. You still had people who were working as servants and people who were aristocrats. At the same time, it had to be a time period when such modern institutions as mental asylums [which feature in the story] existed.
It’s also a period when Korea was occupied by Japan. What intrigued you about this?
That was a time when this idea of Japanese colonialism became so solidified, the Korean people felt there was no chance that they would escape from the grip of colonial power and be independent again. Back then, as a nation, the Korean identity was coming to a certain end and we had to accept our fate that we would have to become Japanese. It’s a period of hopelessness and a period of giving up.
Do you think The Handmaiden is a feminist film?
That’s what I intended, but whether this film will be evaluated as a feminist film is not for me to tell the audience.
How do you source ideas for your films?
Well, as all filmmakers probably do, I’m always on the lookout for a good story that I want to tell. I have my antennas up, as it were. When newspapers get delivered to my house, I will turn the pages thinking about which story might make a good film. Or if I’m on the internet or in a book store, I’m constantly on the lookout and I will invariably be thinking about whether this story will be good as a film or not, whatever story I might come across.
Your last film, Stoker, was your first in English. How did you find the difference between working in Korea and America?
The Korean film industry is, in a way, following the studio system nowadays. But still it’s slightly different from America. I found it quite a new thing, a new experience, for the studio to share their opinions with me about the film’s every aspect, at every stage, from script development to post-production. Because it was new and different, adapting to that process took some getting used to. In every aspect, I found myself explaining a lot of what I was doing, rather than just going ahead and doing it. But I accepted that: it’s something that’s part and parcel of making a film in America.
Your film Oldboy was remade by Spike Lee in America. Were you tempted to get involved?
Not even in my wildest dreams would I want to direct something I’d already done before. It’s probably a last resort for when I run dry of stories to tell! I wouldn’t want to interfere with someone remaking my film either. If I want to remake somebody else’s film, I wouldn’t want the original creator to interfere with my process, so I’d want to respect the filmmaker’s process by not trying to get involved.
Are you particularly influenced by western moviemaking?
When Koreans see European or American melodramas, they just seem very similar. We are really shocked to see the similarity. The action scenes and their way of expressing rage seem quite remote from our feelings.
Is there a limit to what violence you can put on screen?
Of course there’s a limit. There was one film I couldn’t sit through, and that was Saving Private Ryan. I was so scared I had to close my eyes.
Is it true that your wife helps you with your films?
It’s not that she’s a muse for me, or gives me inspiration and makes me comfortable mentally. It’s not like that. She gives me very concrete advice when I write a script. When I don’t know where a film should go, or what to choose, she gives me a lot of help. She doesn’t work in the film industry—she’s a housewife—but she does have a great eye for stories.
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Photos: Moho Film/Yong Film and Fox Searchlight Pictures