Park Chan-wook Talks Remakes, Sci-Fi and His Twisted New Movie 'The Handmaiden'

Park Chan-wook Talks Remakes, Sci-Fi and His Twisted New Movie 'The Handmaiden'

Oct 21, 2016

The Handmaiden isn't quite like any movie South Korean director Park Chan-wook has made to date, and yet it contains the signature tastes of his most beloved movies. It's got the hidden agendas and violent ends of his vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance). It's got the forbidden romance of Thirst. It's got the twisty, unpredictable dynamics of Stoker. And that's just scratching the surface.

Park Chan-wook's latest starts off with a simple plan. A slick con-man, Count Fujiwara, hires a petty thief, Sook-Hee, to help him win the affections of Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress. Sook-Hee is hired as Hideko's personal handmaiden, a position she'll use to help manipulate the Japanese heiress to fall in love with the Count, who will then get all of her money when they wed. Again, it's a simple plan.

This is a movie, of course, so obviously things don't go quite as planned. And since this is a Chan-wook Park movie, the paths it takes along the way are perverse, shocking, funny, thrilling and eventually fatal.

We spoke, through a translator, to the master filmmaker a few weeks ago at Fantastic Fest about how The Handmaiden came to be, how he got such bold performances, and what genres he might be heading to next. The Handmaiden is a tad different from most of your movies in that the audience is shown various hidden agendas much earlier. Was that a particular appeal of this story for you?

Park: To a degree there is an immediate reveal the audience knows that the characters don't know about each other. They're curious and want to find out. We as the audience only know about Sook-Hee and the Count's hidden agenda, so the audience themselves also can't find out the true intentions until later on. The idea is that once the hidden agenda and the original plans meet, there's a conflict in the emotional attraction she feels to Hideko. And it's the resolution of the conflict that's interesting, which is why it was structured in such a way to reveal some of the hidden agenda. And Hideko also has her own hidden agenda, but it's in conflict to her own emotions. The Count also falls in love with Hideko unintentionally, which is why his head is clouded and he can't clearly see this plan that the two girls have concocted. You've become such a go-to inspiration and reference for fans of Korean films, but what filmmakers inspire you?

Park: There's influencing elements not only in cinema, but there's the arts and literature that I draw inspiration from. If we're to limit it to just cinema, it's Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Bergman, and Robert Aldrich. The scale of the production is lush and elaborate and grand, but the story itself is so small and intimate. Are you afforded a higher level of production value and creative freedom in Korea?

Park: It's not impossible to make films like this in America, but it's probably true that there's only a handful of directors that are allowed to make movies with comparable scale, sets and design. Probably only directors like Fincher and the Coen Brothers have the power to still make these kind of movies. What was the audition process like for this and how do you earn an actor's trust with such explicit scenes?

Park: Hideko is played by an actress that has quite a lot of experience and is a star in Korea. Sook-Hee, that actress, this is her first film. She'd only done stage acting, so for the average audience, she's an unknown. Min-hee Kim, the actress who played Hideko has a very clear career in that she started out as a fashion model. When she went in to acting, she perhaps didn't have much passion for the craft and used it only as a means of income. Her performances were kind of phoned in. She's an actress that isn't known for her good performances and was a subject of mockery.

But somewhere along the way she must have had an epiphany around her work, and if that came at the time of The Handmaiden it would have been an interesting story, but it came a few years earlier. There are a few films before The Handmaiden where her performance improved in leaps. In The Handmaiden, her passion for delivering a good performance was at its height, so she came into it with the attitude that in order to be able to deliver a good performance she'd be willing to do anything.

For the role of Sook-Hee, when the audition notices were going out, they were fully aware the roles would require a high level of nudity and explicit sex scenes, so only those who were ready for such a role would apply. It just so happened that Kim Tae-ri's favorite actress was Min-hee Kim, who played Hideko, so that's probably why she was more readily able to be so close and play those intimate scenes. Are you guarded against remakes of your own work?

Park: I made The Handmaiden after reading the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and I've made other movies that have source material. When I make those movies, I don't want interference with my filmmaking and I don't seek advice from the original authors about my intentions. In a similar way, if someone wants to come remake my films, I wouldn't want to say much about it since I wouldn't want interference if it were me. If someone wants to remake my film, it's a boring to me if they want to just redo it with some actors in a different language. I'd rather see it be a source of inspiration for someone to come up with their own distinct vision or voice. Do you have a specific project you still dream of making?

Park: Rather than say a specific project, it's in terms of genres. The first is a western, the second is sci-fi. Those are the two genres that are difficult to try in Korea. Sci-fi movies tend to require higher budgets and, compared to its popularity in America, it's less popular in Korea. That's why if I were to make another American film, I'd try it in those genres.

There are a number of projects I'm developing, but none have been financed. I could tell you what I want my next to be, but it could be false information depending on whatever happens first. I do want to alternate between making American and Korean films, though. I want to go back and forth.


The Handmaiden is in theaters now.


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