The Handmaiden, the latest film from Park Chan-wook, the South Korean auteur who brought Oldboy into the world, is as wild as you might expect. Based very loosely on Sarah Waters's 2002 novel Fingersmith, the film has been relocated from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s, and it manages to be Park's most lavishly staged production yet. The Handmaiden begins as the story of a young Korean pickpocket (Kim Tae-Ri) who tries to grift a Japanese heiress out of her money. But that barely scratches the surface of a whiplash-inducing series of plot twists, touching on torture, old-school porn, sadism, a mental hospital, and a ton of graphic sex.
Most of that graphic sex is between two women. Kim's pickpocket character, Sook-hee, develops unexpected feelings for the heiress, Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee. The lesbian storyline is tender, and propped up by heartfelt, if sometimes operatic performances by the leads. But there's a troubling needle for Park to thread here: The director unabashedly traffics in lurid material, and in service of a lurid lesbian story, he's putting female flesh on lurid display. Despite the film garnering great reviews, not everyone loves Park's presentation of homosexuality.
But Park has always thrived on subject matter that riles people up. His 2000 film JSA, is about an inadvisable friendship between North and South Korean soldiers working at the border between the two warring countries. The DVD of JSA turned into a black-market favorite inside the Hermit Kingdom.
To get a handle on how Park really feels about churning touchy subject matter into rollicking entertainment, I sat down and talked to him in a hotel suite in Los Angeles earlier this week. Park paced around the room giving expansive answers, which were delivered to me through a translator.
VICE: Watching your films—Oldboy in particular—was the first thing that made me want to learn about Korea, and then I later moved there. Do people often tell you that?
Park Chan-wook: I come across people who decided they wanted to learn about filmmaking in Korea and even make their way over to Korea. It's something that I really appreciate. It says something about my films—that they're so loved by an international audience. But if Koreans found out that someone learned about Korea through Oldboy, some Koreans might find that uncomfortable.
Because of the content of the film! There's incest! When I went to the Berlin Film Festival with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, during the Q&A, all the Korean people in Berlin who were there for the Q&A raised their hands and said, "Why do you portray Korea like this? Can't you make a film where Korea is portrayed beautifully?"
"If you want to be real friends, it is necessary to know what the bad aspects are about the other person, or what pain and suffering the other person is going through."
And what do you tell people when they ask that?
That part of becoming true friends with somebody is in knowing the pains the other person is suffering. If you want to be real friends with Europeans, or Germans—we were in Germany—it is necessary to know what the bad aspects are about the other person, or what pain and suffering the other person is going through.
The Handmaiden had all your trademarks: sadism, masochism, revenge, love in defiance of a taboo, murder, and suicide. But even though these themes are recurring, how do you choose which particular story to tell?
I don't have a list where I pick from those elements, but by and large, I look at the big picture, and see what draws me in—what I feel drawn to. Almost every time, the ethical dilemma is what draws me in the most. Everything else is in service of that subject. This film is a bit different—quite distinctive—because this film, rather than dealing with an ethical dilemma, is about love and greed.
Would you agree that of all your films, this one that is the most pro-love, and pro-sex?
There certainly are many sexual elements in this film, but not all of it is in praise of sex. For instance, when you come to the elements of the violent male gaze, it's something disgusting, and only when it comes to the lovemaking between the two women is it pro-sex, or pro-love.
I noticed that. The Handmaiden does seem pretty critical of male sexuality. Was that intentional?
It's a kind of rape in my mind—gang rape. [In several scenes] men are basically listening to [an erotic] book being read, but when they sit there and look at Lady Hideko, listening to her reading pornographic material, it might as well be as violent as gang rape.
But the sex scenes between the women in the film seemed heartfelt. What was it like shooting them?
When it comes to shooting sex scenes, there's nothing more difficult and stressful. What's quite ironic is that when I'm shooting a fistfight and the camera is rolling, the actors have faces full of hatred as the characters fight. But whenever I call, "Cut," the actors can break into laughter and the set can be lively. But when it comes to scenes of lovemaking, even though the scene is supposed to be about being happy, and being in love, you can't apply the same attitude. It's not the same atmosphere. So I try to be as considerate as I can to the actors doing the love scene, and try to get through it as quickly as possible, so they don't have to be uncomfortable for a long time.
Four of your last five movies have had female protagonists. Are you primarily interested in telling women's stories now? And are you a feminist?
Well, it's something that just kind of ended up happening. There was no intention behind it. I didn't say, "Now my focus will be primarily on female protagonists," or, "Now I make feminist movies." It wasn't something that was born out of intent. I suppose getting old, becoming mature as a human being, also means you become more of a feminist.
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Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures will release The Handmaiden in theaters October 21.