PARK CHAN-WOOK IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2016. PHOTOS: VICTORIA STEVENS.
Adapted from The Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Park Chan-wook’s newest film The Handmaiden, which debuted at Cannes and screened at TIFF, is visually stunning, densely detailed, and surprisingly funny. The version you’ll see in cinemas across the U.S. feels like a thriller, with a carefully constructed rhythm of twists and turns. In Chan-wook’s native Korea, however, an extended version has already been released featuring 23 minutes of additional footage. “Rather than saying there were lumps of scenes cut from the film, in each scene, small pieces were taken out here and there,” the auteur tells us through a translator while visiting New York. “I never thought about this, but people did come up to me and say, ‘The extended version feels like more of a romance,'” he adds.
While the original novel takes place in Victorian England, The Handmaiden is set in Korea during Japanese colonial rule. The first half of the film told from the point of view of Sook-Hee, a young, impoverished thief, who poses as a handmaiden as part of an elaborate heist. But just as you get a grasp on Sook-Hee’s narrative, the perspective changes to that of Hideko, the beautiful, wealthy, isolated woman Sook-Hee serves. Much of the story is confined to Hideko’s house, an imposing blend of Japanese and Western influences owned by Hideko’s unsettling and pretentious uncle Kouzuki.
EMMA BROWN: I wanted to talk about Kouzuki’s house. What was the starting point? How did you come up with this idea that it would be a combination of Japanese and Western architecture?
PARK CHAN-WOOK: The decision was made when we decided to veer away from the source novel and set the story during those colonial years in Korea. It was the time in history when modern cultures and modern civilization made their way into Korea. The idea of the mental hospital—in the movie, we say that the mental hospital is located in Japan, but the very notion of it was so unfamiliar to Korean society at the time. Everything that came from the West came via Japan during that time. It was important for me to deal with this subject of things filtering in through Japan—and also things from Japan making their way into Korea. Why it was important [to me] was not because these ideas were Japanese or they were Western, but because of their modernity. How did these modern things make their way into Korea?
It wasn’t in a way that happened over time in a harmonious manner, organically becoming part of Korea along with those things that were already part of Korean tradition, customs, and heritage. It was done forcibly. They were just placed upon Korea, just like you see with the architecture of this house—there is a Western wing and a Japanese wing, and they are mechanically put together. Not only is it funny to see this fusion of two styles of architecture—you’re literally lumping them together—but what’s more ridiculous is the way all of the people who work in the house take off their shoes when they enter the Japanese wing and put them back on when they enter the Western wing. That is quite ridiculous. And just look at the library—the exterior looks like a Japanese building, but when you enter inside, you find Western bookcases and bookshelves, and you go past that and find Japanese tatami mats on the floor.
Kouzuki, who dons a tuxedo, [also] takes off his shoes when he enters the tatami mat area. And if you take a few of these tatami mats out and place sand and water into those empty holes, it turns into a Japanese garden. In a sense, Kouzuki is creating his own realm, his own universe, the whole concept of Japanese gardens being that the bonsai trees and white sand and stones and water are there to represent the mountains and rivers of the world. It’s a world unto itself and through that, Kouzuki is building his own universe.
BROWN: As you developed the details of the house, did it affect the characters at all? Or were the characters already set?
CHAN-WOOK: It’s something that happened in tandem. But if I have to say one came first, I would say characters.
BROWN: The film is so wonderfully funny. Was the humor something that came naturally while you were writing and filming, or was it done very intentionally?
CHAN-WOOK: It would be the former. When I’m writing something, if it gets too serious, I just can’t bear it, so I take a step back and take the overall scene in and vent the air a little bit. The other aspect is that some audiences might find homosexuality an uncomfortable subject matter, and a character who is a Japanese collaborator is always uncomfortable. Sometimes you need these warm, human moments—something that feels close—to help things along. If that sounds a little cynical, I guess it’s a matter of temperature and how I use humor. The sex scene between the two women, I have them talking a lot. I actually had the goal of making this the sex scene with the most amount of dialog in the history of cinema. Most of the dialog is quite funny, but by doing that, I am making this love making between two people of the same sex feel more organic and natural.
BROWN: For the first half of the film, the story is told through Sook-Hee’s point of view, and then we see things from Hideko’s perspective. Did one voice come more naturally, both in terms of writing and the camera, than the other one?
CHAN-WOOK: I didn’t really find one easier than the other, but I can say that my heart went more to Hideko. In a way, this is a story about a woman who from a very young age had been subject to sexual molestation, and it is a story about her overcoming that and liberating herself from that. That is the story that I set out to make. So although Sook-Hee is a very important character, Hideko, I would say, is where the core of the film is. On the other hand, Sook-Hee is a Korean woman who is braver, who is more proactive, and who is more action oriented, and because of that, she is the more lovely of the two. That’s how, in my heart, those two characters attain balance.
BROWN: You said recently that you are a feminist, but you weren’t when you made Oldboy. When did things change and why?
CHAN-WOOK: I couldn’t say that I wasn’t a feminist at all before Oldboy, because I had made J.S.A.  and in J.S.A., the investigator wasn’t a female character in the original novel—I consciously turned her into a female character. So I did have a feminist side to me, just not in such a pronounced way. But the reason I said that was because after I made Oldboy, I realized that the only character who is not privy to the entire truth in that film was the female character; she was the only female character in the film, and she was excluded from the truth. That made me so uncomfortable in such a big way that is spurred me on to developing Lady Vengeance. That was the genesis from which I went on to make other films with strong female characters. So to simplify things, I said it like that, that Oldboy was the moment when I turned into a big feminist.
THE HANDMAIDEN OUT NOW IN SELECT THEATERS.