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TIFF 2016 Interview: Chan-wook Park Talks “The Handmaiden”


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From Saminjo to Oldboy; from Lady Vengeance to Stocker. A South Korean filmmaker, Chan-wook Park has created many notable films that certainly will go down to the cinematic history as one of the greatest. However, what he had done in The Handmaiden is yet to be discussed by many. Adapting it from Victorian era to Korea under the Japanese colonial rule, The Handmaiden follows love, betrayal, vengeance and passion, which as you know, can be turn into powerful weapon.

Having a great combination of everything, Chan-wook Park as a skilful chief cooks the most delicious food, called The Handmaiden, that will fascinate you by its intriguing plot, absolutely mesmerizing cinematography, camera work, and of course, a powerful and yet, brave and risky performance by entire cast. As you can see, I can keep going writing only positive things about The Handmaiden, but I guess, no one better than you can judge the film just after seeing its first ten minutes.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the most unusual interview I ever had – and that was with filmmaker Chan-wook Park, who literally read my mind by giving the answers I believed, you would love to hear. Here is why presenting you below interview is an absolute honor for me, as something, I am certainly proud of.

MOVIEMOVESME: Why did you change the setting of Victorian era from the book to the Korean era under Japanese rule?

Chan-wook Park: I only found out there is a BBC mini series of the book after I’d finished reading it. So even if I made the film it would’ve been quite different from the BBC mini series. Having said that, it is still made in wonder how I should approach it. At the time my producing partner came up with a great idea to transport this story to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. It was the only time in Korean colonial history where there was a sense of class system, so that you hade a handmaiden but at the same time a modern institution.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the making of the book reading scene as it was, in my opinion, a class apart?

Chan-wook Park: First of all there’s a reading session where the aunt is reading the book. She is somebody who reads well but she has a passive characteristic. In the end she attempts to escape but is captured. Hideko on the other hand is not as passive as her aunt. As a successor to her dead aunt she has inherited the same quiet demeanor and reading. But her attitude is quite different from her aunt. The male audience in these reading sessions and the way they listen to these sessions, if you look at the situation you can compare it to gang rape. Even though Hideko finds herself in this dire circumstance, her attitude is not so passive at all. She defies the situation by trying to imagine what each man is thinking in their heads and as if to say, “I know what you’re thinking”, she inserts herself into those imaginations and as one holding the whip, whips them. So in that imagination she is punishing them. It’s so good that she’s making the men feel suffocated and this way she is giving an overwhelming performance for these men. She is playing the audience out of her hand. In the second reading when she’s wearing the green kimono, the situation is somewhat different. Hideko’s eyes are directed to herself and not the male audience. It is because what she’s reading depicts sexual relations between two women. She’s thinking about sex between herself and Sook-Hee. If the first reading was metaphorically gang rape, second reading is metaphorically masturbation. So even though there’s a blackout she keeps on reading as she has memorized everything. It goes to say how much in her imagination she has thought about making love with Sook-Hee.

To sum up, in both reading sessions Hideko refuses to remain a mere object of this violent male gaze, but rather is someone who takes sexuality and her sexual desires in her own terms.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the impressive camera work which makes this film such an easy watch despite its long length?

Chan-wook Park: In the modern cinema, there are many films that use a lot of close ups and quick cuts. It takes some time to step back and see the overall picture. You see a lot of shaky camera movements. With this film I wanted to take a step back and make sure that the distance between the camera and the object is such that instead of one person, the camera shows two or three persons in the shot. Also in terms of editing I wanted to take a more measured approach. It makes for an overall atmosphere of elegance and composure. However, it purely isn’t just the function of the camera or the performance of the actors but it is the opportunity where you’re able to think for yourself about emotions at work in these scenes.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about casting, getting the right actors who are able to give such amazing performances?

Chan-wook Park: Making a good selection of your actors is probably one of the most important things that a filmmaker can do to make a good film. I look at the craft of the actors and how popular these actors are. Of course, it is important that the actors have the right look and this much any filmmaker can do but for me it is the attitude the actor has towards their work is what matters. If there’s an actor who’s only concerned with what he’s doing then it doesn’t matter how much of a genius actor this person is, I’m not interested in working with him. People sometimes categorize films as ensemble films but for a director every film is an ensemble film because it’s not like a melodrama, as if there are no other actors in it. So an actor has to be able to look at the big picture and understand the fact that he/she is one part of the bigger picture.

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