For several decades now Park Chan-Wook has been at the forefront of Korean Cinema that’s finding International audiences. His films are often breathtaking and full of bravado, solidifying sensuality and revenge in equal measure to craft works that both thrill and provide fodder for contemplation. From Oldboy through to Stoker his visual style is sumptuous and intoxicating, crafting visual marvels that are equally visceral in nature.
His latest work, The Handmaiden, debuted at Cannes last May. It may well be his most accomplished work to date, a fantastic reimaging of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, resetting its Victorian local into the 1930s where Korea was occupied by Japanese forces. With its dizzying narrative and remarkable style even our seasoned Korea expert Pierce Conrad admits that with this work Park has “outdone himself” with this one.
I spoke with the filmmaker through his private translater when he was in Toronto for the film’s North American premiere. With a screening set for Fantastic Fest, as well as a forthcoming release in October, it’s a fine time to hear from the master about his own views on the film’s impact and how it fits in with his own intellectual journey.
I have described the film to people that it's as if SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE fucked RASHOMON and had a beautiful baby. I'm wondering if you could talk about your own passion for and intimidation of Japanese cinema, and how here you've made Japanese festish and Korean fetish connect.
Well, I will have to talk about where the name Hideko comes from! I am a great fan of the Japanese flmmaker Mikio Naruse. His muse, for they made at least a dozen films together, was the great actress, Hideko Takamine. She is a model of my ideal woman and hence the name Hideko.
As for this thing about the beauty of things that are Japanese - Of course, there's beauty to be found in other cultures as well, be it British, French, Spanish or Japanese or Chinese, what have you. They all have their own unique beauty and Japan would be no exception. Yes, I am drawn by such beauty to be found in Japanese culture. But, yes, Koreans tend to have two minds about this beauty of Japan. It would be quite different from a Korean looking at Italy and appreciating its beauty. Along with its beauty there's a sense of potential cruelty or potential violence that could explode under certain circumstances.
Koreans have directly the previous generation had gone through the experience where this could be the case. That's why this film fuses together the attraction to the beauty of Japan, how we can be mesmerized by it, but at the same time, the sense of fear that you have when it comes to looking at it.
On top of that you’ve provided another beautiful collision between this Western narrative and an Asian setting. While the film seems for me fundamentally about the complicated, masochistic and sadistic relationship betwen Korea and Japan, it’s equally about how the West has impacted this dynamic.
Handmaiden starts as a British novel and a period novel. I’m transposing that to a certain period in Korean history when it so happened that the Western culture started to flood into the Korean peninsula. That’s what makes it interesting. Koreans received Western culture, so-called the modern civilization, by route of, or filtered through Japan.
For a long time, Korea played the role of being the one who was giving, passing on culture and civilization to Japan. For hundreds of years Koreans would think that they were superior and they would shut themselves to the outside world in this hermit kingdom. They were living in a situation where it was quite apart from the rest of the scientific developments that were happening in the world at that time.
When the doors to Korea were forced open, the Koreans felt quite a sense of being insulted or. They were feeling that they were forcibly having their doors opened by the Japanese like this to have to receive culture this way. It was an affront.
But while some others would feel rather than repulsion, they would be feeling attraction. That's of course key.
Essential a Yin/yang, or Taeguk
Right! Now, a character like Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) is the one who rather than feel affronted or feel repulsion towards the Japanese, rather, he's mesmerized by this new culture and modernism that is brought in by the Japanese and he is now worshipping the Japanese and everything that they are bringing to him. Also, he's now finding himself worshipping the British culture or the British civilization. They are both island nations and they are both imperialists at the time.
In this way, Kozuki is internally being colonized as well. There's some parallels to be drawn between characters, like Kozuki and some intellectuals living in Korea right now, or at least some factions of the ruling class in Korea. The only difference is that they no longer serve Japanese masters, in their heart there are the American masters.
This seems to mirror another tripartite in your film - You have Hollywood, you have Japanese cinema, you have Korean cinema. The conversation, as it were, is a Korean film coming to terms with 1950s and 60s Japanese cinema, when some in Japan were looking to Hollywood. It seems to me you are also coming to terms with also this colonization, finding fascination with all of this, but also, wanting to be your own man, find repulsion at the commonplace. As such, do you think this is your most personal film?
It certainly is something to think about. First of all, Japanese films for a long time in Korea were forbidden. I didn't have the opportunity when I was young to watch Japanese films enough to be influenced by any of them. This is why I don't really think Japanese films worked in that way for me. You are influenced by films that you watch when you are younger, when are coming up. And if I cited any influences, as I was seeing them when I was younger, these would be the Hollywood classics and the French cinema.