One day, science will finally deliver us the electronic equivalent of a Babel fish: a little device you can put in your ear that will interpret and translate your words as they’re spoken. That way, people from opposing planet will be able to hold fluid conversations despite speaking completely different languages.
This sprang to mind as we sat down with Park Chan-wook, the Korean director of films as Oldboy, Stoker and I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK. Despite the stunning mental agility of a translator, who renders my mumblings in to Korean and Director Park’s responses into English, the back-and-forth is painfully slow. All of this explains why the interview below, despite lasting 20 minutes, only contains a few brief questions; given the opportunity, we could have talked about Park’s new film, The Handmaiden, for hours.
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, it transfers a steamy and intense thriller of love and oppression from Victorian Britain to Korea in the early 20th century. It’s about the relationship between a Japanese nobleman, an heiress and a young maid, but as Park peels back the layers on their history, we realise that nothing is quite as it seems. Beautifully shot and absorbingly paced – its 145 minute theatrical cut slipping by in what feels like half the time – The Handmaiden may be the filmmaker’s best film yet.
On the eve of The Handmaiden’s release, here’s what Park Chan-wook has to say about its themes, whether film critics should try their hand at filmmaking, plus an update on his next film, Second Born. Note that there are a couple of light spoilers at the beginning of the conversation, but nothing you wouldn’t glean from watching the trailer.
One of the things I really liked about the film was its theme of sexuality being used as a tool of oppression, and then that flipping over into liberation. Was that why you were attracted to the story?
Well, you’ve answered your own question! That’s a very accurate perspective on the narrative. The moment where that aspect of the story is made most obvious is probably the use of the bells. So in terms of using those bells at the end, even at the screenplay stage, even among the people I was working with, there were voices of concern about their usage.
There was concern that it’s something Kineku has read during a reading session, and when she’s overcome a lot of obstacles with Sook-hee, and when she’s liberated herself from that male oppression, why does she have to act out something she was forced to read from this erotic literature? But that was my very point. If she uses what she had to read by force, for the reading pleasure of these male guests – if she uses that for her own pleasure, then I thought it would emphasise the subversive nature of the film.
The moment where Sook-hee destroys the porn collection felt as intense as the love scene before it. I wonder if that’s something you wanted to highlight.
If you take that whole sequence, and you compare it to the excitement of making love, I would say that’s a valid analysis. Although the entire sequence is intended to be the climax of the film, I didn’t intend for that to literally feel like a sex scene, although I did imagine that some in the audience would see this particular scene might see it that way.
For example, some people might think that splashing the ink over the books is somehow a metaphor for ejaculation, or when they’re thrown into the artificial pond, is it supposed to be suggestive of female genitalia when it gets aroused? But although I’d imagined at certain points that members of the audience may interpret it that way, but they weren’t intended to be that way. Or is it the subconscious at work? Well, I’ve nothing to say.
Speaking of how films are perceived, I wonder if you’ve found that audiences in different parts of the world have reacted to The Handmaiden in different ways. In American cinemas, it seems more acceptable to show violence than sex on the screen, whereas in Europe, perhaps it’s the opposite.
In this context, do you consider the UK being European?
I ask this, because you guys have Brexited!
Ha, yes. Well.
I have certainly met a small number of journalists and film critics and heard about their reactions, but outside that, I can’t make a generalising comment – I’m not really sure. Even on American TV, I get the feeling that you’re seeing scenes of sex more and more over violence. Take Game Of Thrones, for instance.
Before you became a filmmaker, you were a film critic. I wonder how being a critic informed how you make films, and I wonder whether you think more film journalists should try to make a film.
Well, to start off with I was a film director before I was a film critic, and when the film didn’t do very well I went on to work as a film critic, and then I went back and made another film – and the second film didn’t do so well either, so I went back to being a critic! It was the third time, with Joint Security Area, that I got to a place where I didn’t have to work anymore as a film critic.
I don’t think there’s much of a correlation between film criticism and filmmaking. Even though I have watched many films made by other filmmakers and tried to analyse them, I’m not sure whether it had much of an influence on my filmmaking. If there’s one thing I can say I got out of working as a film critic, as a filmmaker, I’d say that when I get bad reviews, I don’t react emotionally to it like some filmmakers do.
Would I recommend for film critics to work as filmmakers? I would say that they should do it if they want to, and not if they don’t want to. What I mean by that is, I don’t think the experience as working as a film director would necessarily make for a better film critic, just as having worked as a film critic didn’t really make me a better filmmaker. If you don’t have the confidence to do a really good job as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t recommend that a film critic go and make a film.
Because there’d be nothing worse than a film critic trying to make a film and it turns out to be a bad film, and then they have to come back and work as a critic again – you would’ve lost your trust with your readers, because if you’re a bad filmmaker, they don’t want to trust your reviews!
I wanted to wrap up by asking about Second Born, which I understand will be a science fiction film, is that right?
It’s a sci-fi film, and it’s a sci-fi action film. In my hands I have the feeling that I want to make it a Philip K Dick-esque sci-fi, but it’s such early days at the moment. We’re still in the early stages of script writing, and we have a long way to go from here on out before we’ve finished the screenplay and got it financed and then into production.
Fantastic. I love Philip K Dick, so I can’t wait to see it.
The Handmaiden is out in UK cinemas from the 14th April, and it’s a real must-see.