Delicately crafting Park Chan-wook’s ‘THE HANDMAIDEN’: the auteur on violence and vision


handmaiden_FFTVCourtney Howard // Film Critic

OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (otherwise known as the “Vengeance Trilogy”), THIRST and STOKER. These are the attention-grabbing, exhilarating, cinematic masterpieces by director Park Chan-wook. And we can add one more to the list – THE HANDMAIDEN.

This adaption of author Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith tells the tale of a pickpocket-turned-handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), who comes to work in the lavish, dollhouse-like mansion of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) and his shy, anxiety-riddled niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). For what once was began as a con, Sook-Hee is quickly drawn into a dangerous romance with the wealthy heiress.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, the auteur spoke about everything from his process with longtime collaborators, to why he changed the British novel into Korean cinema, to why we see so few modern films with strong vision.

Originally, Director Park had set out to make an English language film set in Victorian England. However, it was through his producer’s suggestion that he translated it to take place in Korea.

“It was a fascinating idea, because it brought layer to the film that makes the dynamic between the two characters even more fascinating. In terms of the differences between the two characters it adds the difference of nationality. Not only that, but these two nations hold animosity towards each other – especially at the time. This plays an important element to have one person from the occupying country, and another from the occupied country. This creates one more obstacle for the two lovers to overcome in order to fulfill their love. In the process of showing how these characters overcome these differences, adding these obstacles would make it that much more moving for the audience.”

In many of his films, Director Park manages to find a staggering amount of beauty in discomforting violence – a device he utilizes very conscientiously.

“I don’t use it because violence unto itself has some kind of artistic value. What it does bring with it is pain and suffering related to violence and a sense of guilt on those who inflict the violence, etc. The violence is used as a device to convey those other aspects that are related to violence. Of course you should feel uncomfortable because violence is an uncomfortable thing. It’s necessity dictates that I portray violence. It’s not the other way around at all. If, in my storytelling, what the story requires or calls for moments of violence, I don’t avoid it if it causes some sort of discomfort. That is my position. It’s not the other way around where I like violence so much I just use it frivolously – even if the scene or story doesn’t call for it.”

HA Jung-woo, KIM Tae-ri, KIM Min-hee and CHO Jin-woong in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

HA Jung-woo, KIM Tae-ri, KIM Min-hee and CHO Jin-woong in THE HANDMAIDEN. Courtesy of Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures.

THE HANDMAIDEN is fundamentally about the need for beauty – the measures the characters acquire it, how they nurture it, how they imprison it and how they set it free.

“This is a story that has to do with these women. The Lady Hideko, being of noble birth is someone who is trapped in this mansion. She has nothing really to take pleasure from, because she is locked in this state. She has fine clothes and beautiful jewelry which she adorns herself with. We see a lot of that because we see a character locked in this situation where it is all she is allowed to enjoy. She is living with her Uncle Kouzuki who worships things of beauty. Even though he is not in every scene, this very house is designed by him so that you feel his presence wherever you are in this house.

Let me give you an instance where Kouzuki aspires to extreme beauty. In the library there are tatami mats. The empty space beneath it has been turned into a kind of Japanese garden. It is not there frivolously but it has a purpose. The trees, water, paintings of mountains and rivers, is symbolizing that Uncle Kouzuki is trying to create his own universe or world inside this library, or his domain. By that, you can see how he holds this desire to become a godlike being. So when it comes to beauty, it is all in service of the character or story that I am trying to portray.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Director Park’s films are so special is that he works with frequent collaborators – like DP Chung Chung-hoon, costume designer Jo Sang-gyeon and production designer Ryu Seong-hie. He also remains open for suggestions they bring to the table.

“I collaborate with all my heads of departments. The sound designer, the composer, they are all equally important collaborators. When I talk to these people, it’s not just about how I’m going to execute this screenplay. I talk to them right from the onset, even when I’m contemplating whether or not to embark on the project. I’m engaged in a conversation with them from an early stage. when I go through different drafts of the screenplay I would send it to them and ask for their thoughts. They are with me through all the steps of the process. The kind of collaborative relationship I have with them is they are able to freely tell me their thoughts.”

During any given year, cinephiles see so few visual-driven films released. Far greater are the generic, utilitarian studio releases. One of the reasons Director Park speculates is that studios are too cautious with their monetary investments.

“To visualist driven cinema, you need money. When financiers read a script they say ‘This kind of story, it would require this amount of money.’ But to really do something special and make it visualist cinema, you need to put a little bit more money into that.”

THE HANDMAIDEN held its regional premiere at Fantastic Fest, and opens on October 21.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.