Surrealism and Sensuality in Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’

previously appeared on Cinema Thread 2016

The erotic thriller The Handmaiden explores many of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and Stoker) cinematic passions: rage erupts into violence, desire transfigures through the agony of obsession, the frame is exquisitely rendered on digital, using old anamorphic lenses for a painterly mise-en-scene. The tale, inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, is translated, very effectively, from the book’s original Victorian England setting, to occupied Korea under Japanese rule. It’s a world of repression, cruel courtly etiquette, and darkly illicit activities behind closed doors.

KIM Min-hee in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

As the film opens, a young Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), is locked away in a remote estate, under the dark watchful eye of her twisted uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean handmaiden, arrives to tend to her every whim. But Sookee is no servant, she’s an experienced forger and accomplished thief, hired by a trickster known as “the Count” (Ha Jung-woo) in a plot to steal Lady Hideko’s fortune. There again Hideko might appear beguilingly innocent, but she’s no blushing debutante. Just as you think you’ve got a handle on the plot, in a nod to Rashomon, the story folds in on itself three times in an attempt to find some notion of truth. It’s a glorious re-spinning of dark deeds and, finally, enduring love.

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.

Critics at Cannes could not decide whether Handmaiden is a sensuous tale, beautifully told, or Asia’s answer to Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Make your own mind up. It’s art cinema at its best, richly informed by film theory and a love for the visual medium. We spoke to Park Chan-wook at a rare stateside appearance in Beverly Hills promoting the film.

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With co-producer, Wonjo Jeong, acting as translator, Park throws an amused glance at the abstract coffee and cream artwork on the walls, sat down,and nodded to producer Jeong to proceed.

As a director for whom horror is a hallmark, Park is often asked whether Hitchcock is his greatest influence. He dismisses the suggestion, noting “I was watching Vertigo when I decided to become a filmmaker, however, when I talk about those who have influenced my work, I wouldn’t cite him only”

Park’s films don’t shy away from the visceral. In fact, violence is something he’s used to defending.

“When it comes to violence in my films — of course it’s there to make you uncomfortable. It’s used as a device to convey the pain and suffering, and the guilt of those inflicting it. Violence, of itself, does not have an artistic value. When the story requires violence, I don’t avoid it.”

What was behind Park’s decision to move the novel’s original Victorian English setting to Korea?

“Actually we did set out to make a English-language film, set in England, but through my producer’s suggestion, I translated it to Korea. What it did bring to the film was to add one more layer, of nationality, which makes the dynamic between the characters even more fascinating, because those two nations (Korea and Japan) were in animosity towards each other, at least back in that time. That plays an important element, with one person from the occupying country, and another from the occupied. It adds one more layer, one more obstacle, for the two lovers to overcome.”

KIM Tae-ri in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.

When asked whether the film’s sex scenes were too overtly explicit, Park shrugs it off or the question just gets lost in translation. He murmurs about the “pursuit of beauty” and clearly doesn’t care about others’ sensitivities (a rare and admirably auteur position to hold.) When asked whether he thinks Handmaiden will herald a resurgence in 90s-era erotic thrillers such as Basic Instinct, he shakes his head: “I don’t limit my films to a specific genre. That was a good movie and, now I come to think about it, so was Bound, but I consider my film to be more of a romantic fairytale.”

Our time with the filmmaker drew to a close. Park Chan-wook stood for pictures with Kim Tae-ri. It was a very swift departure: smile, turn, smile, turn — and exit. After a respectful pause, we left the suite.

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