Park Chan-wook Interview: Playing with Perspective and Genre in The Handmaiden

For those who follow the wild n’ wacky world of genre movies, it’s no secret that South Korea has become an incredible factory for some of the finest action movies, thrillers, and horror romps released worldwide. There have been a number of brilliant filmmakers to emerge from the artistically lurid movie factory, but none better than Park Chan-wook . Though he worked in the national film industry since the early 90s, Park burst into the international film scene with the unforgettable Oldboy in 2003. A mixture of playfully dark humour, gorgeously stylized cinematography, beautifully choreographed vicious fight scenes, and an exploration of the revenge drama from its literary roots to exploitation extremes,  Oldboy was an instant cult classic that earned Park a worldwide fanbase.

Since then he has continued to work in his twisted style through a variety of projects including his ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ wrap-up Lady Vengeance, the best 21st century vampire yarn Thirst, and an attempt to crack the American market with the underrated Stoker. Now Park has returned to South Korea with one of his most lush and lurid works to date in The Handmaiden. Loosely based on a novel by Sarah Waters (much like how Oldboy took its premise from a Japanese manga before spinning off into it’s own wild direction), the movie opens in a deceptively different place for the filmmaker. It begins as a period romance of sorts about a thief and a con-man teaming up in an elaborate plot to seduce a Japanese heiress out of her fortune. Of course appearances can be deceiving. After an hour of bleakly comic romance and deception, the film delivers a shocking twist and then doubles back to retell its first hour from a new perspective that reveals hidden perversions and violence beneath the gentle exterior. Toss in some gentle political commentary with a setting within the Japanese occupation of South Korea, and you have one of Park’s most cheekily funny, emotionally complex, and unsettling works to date.

Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with the great Park Chan-wook  during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival when the director visited for the North American Premiere of The Handmaiden. We picked the playfully perverted auteur’s brain about his new project, his love of Brian De Palma, and the experimental use of 3D he had planned to use in his latest film. 

Dork Shelf: So first off, what was it that drew you to this novel? Was it the shifting perspectives?

Park Chan-wook: Well, the novel does have the shifting perspectives and that’s exactly what I was drawn to. The shifting perspectives changed the nature of the meaning of the story, which seemed like an interesting avenue to explore. After reading the first part and realizing how the shocking twist in the middle changed the nature of the story and then going back to see it again from new perspective, the same situations take on different meanings and tones.  I thought, “How fun would that to be to explore in a movie.” It seemed like a naturally cinematic device. In our lives and in larger social and political events, perspective can really change how anything is understood. 

DS: I really enjoyed how the film presented itself as being a very different genre early on than what it became and I was wondering what interested you about that as a filmmaker? Mixing and toying with genre conventions seems to be a regular and important part of your work.

PC: As I make films, I find that more and more I think about genres less. That was true when I was making Stoker as well. When you look at The Handmaiden, sure you can classify it as a thriller in a broad sense. But it does have so many other elements in it. Certainly it’s a romance as well and has it’s own good share of comedy. I don’t want to be limited by narrow definitions of genre and try to break those more and more in my films.

DS: Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed the comedic aspect to your movies, which is more overt in some films than others but always there. How important is it to have a comedic element in your work?

PC: Well, the novel The Handmaiden didn’t have any comedy. Anything you found funny about the film was something that I infused into the story. I didn’t think about it so much, but my writing partner [Seo-Kyung Chung] told me while we working on the script, “You seem to be someone who can’t let a scene stay serious and dark for very long. You always seem to include some humour to break the tension.” After I heard that I agreed. I’d never considered it, but it’s true. I can’t stand cheesy scenes that drone on and on in an overly serious manner, even if they are supposed to be romantic.

The Handmaiden TIFF 2016 -Featured

DS: The way you mix genres and tell such dark tales with a certain level of tongue-in-cheek humour has always reminded me of Brian De Palma. Is he a filmmaker who has influenced your work? 

PC: Yes and I’m assuming you’re also asking about the influence of Hitchcock as well?

DS: (Laughs) Ok sure. 

PC: Well, Brian De Palma is certainly a filmmaker who I admire. I think Brian De Palma is one of those most daring and brave filmmakers out there because there are always moments in his films were people will question the logic of his movie and look at it with cold eyes and demand, “Does this really make sense?” But Brian De Palma doesn’t seem to care. I haven’t read any of De Palma’s screenplays, but I’d imagine the logic would seem suspect. However, when it’s presented on screen and in his style, nobody asks that question. I love the way he creates his own universe with his own grammar and logic. He is truly telling his own stories. 

DS: Well, I have to say that I feel the same way about you and your work.

PC: Thank you. 

DS: What your motivation behind shifting the story to this specific historical setting and was it a world that you had been wanting to explore before?

PC: It really came from practical, pragmatic reasons. I’d learned that there was a BBC mini-series based on the book. So it made sense to shift the story to Korea instead. But then looking at the history of Korea, it had to take place in a time when the class system remained but at the same time there had to be asylums for the story to work. And really the only time when those two things existed was in the early 20th century.

DS: I’d read that you wanted to shoot this movie in 3D and I was curious why you thought that was right for this specific project and if you plan to use that format in the future?

PC: Well, it wasn’t that I particularly wanted to make a 3D film. It was something that seemed right for this story. It came out of the shifting perspectives that we discussed before. I thought the structural nature of the story would work well in 3D. I was curious to see if I used a different level of convergence for the first part of the film and the second part, would emphasize that shift in perspective? For example, we could show the same shot looking over a character’s shoulder in both parts, but they would look quite different because of the added depth. That was the basic idea. 

DS: That sounds like a really unique use of 3D I hope you’ll use that in another project?

PC: Yes, but unfortunately I would need another script or story that would suit those aesthetic requirements.

DS: How did you find working in America on Stoker and do you think that you’ll work overseas again or continue to work primarily in Korea?

PC: Actually, I’m trying to make an English language movie next. So no, that experience didn’t put me off. 

DS: Finally, I have to ask if you saw the Oldboy remake?

PC: (Laughs) No. But, it’s not because I wasn’t interested. I was on the road when it was released and didn’t get to see it in a theater. I haven’t taken the time to watch it at home just yet. But I will.

*Note: This interview was conducted through a translator and edited for clarity.