Interview by Bears Fonte

Sarah Waters’ fresh classic FINGERSMITH arrived in 2002 just as uptight middle class men and women were starting to understand this thing called love might actually exist in the LGBT community as more than just sex.  Of course, pages dripping with sex, Waters’ novel seemed to demand ‘yes… but also don’t forget the sex.’  The sensual shock value would be nothing if the story wasn’t wrapped so artfully around a classic heist set-up, where deceivers are deceived and the audience is left spiraling to point the finger at where they, like the characters, were mislead.

With the king of ultra-violence Park Chan-wook set to film the story, I wondered, like many others, whether he could add much to it, and if he should even try.  First, I’ll admit two warring points.  One, I loved Park’s OLDBOY, a film that still manages to repel and terrify years later. Second, I really believed FINGERSMITH needed a female director.

So where does that leave THE HANDMAIDEN, which ended up being one of my favorite films at this year’s Fantastic Fest?  It’s simple.  Park’s film is absolutely fantastic. And it’s not really FINGERSMITH.  So problem solved.  By resetting the film out of Victorian England and into Japanese-occupation era Korea, and characters and creating a really spectacular and thoughtful racial sublet, Park has essentially given himself a free pass.  This is not an adaptation.  This is a reinvention.  Someone could still make a smashing adaptation of FINGERSMITH and it would be a completely different film (there was actually a BBC miniseries).  And while Park will take some slack for his ‘male gaze’ as the buzz word wholesalers demand, the film is not more oozing with titillation than the book.  The sex seems to be just one of many story-telling devices employed by the master in a tale that demands the audience follow shifting perspectives and keep track of who is hiding what from whom.

Kim Tae-ri plays Sookee, a tough Korean pickpocket who takes a job from the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to serve as the handmaiden to shy Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee).  While there, she is to push Hideko to the count, who plans on putting her in an insane asylum and stealing her wealth.  Of course, once in place, Sookee begins to fall for Hideko herself and begins to rethink her end of the deal.  Further complicating things are Hideko’s uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a Korean who wishes he was Japanese, and plans to marry Hideko himself.  His collection of lurid books and his desire to have Hideko read them to a male audience is a storyline entirely invented by Park for his version of FINGERSMITH, and adds to both the racial tension and the grotesque nature of men in the film.  Every performance in the film is exceptional and Park masterfully draws us from one character to the next as they trade off control of the story.

I had a chance to speak with Park at Fantastic Fest and ask him particularly about this point, the way he uses perception and point of view through the whole thing. Many shots were exactly through the character’s eyes, but different characters in different times, changing from one scene to the next.

“In this film, definitely, in the first and second chapters especially,” says Park, “takes place through the eyes of certain characters. First chapter being through the eyes of Sookee, and second chapter we see the story through Hideko’s eyes.”  The third chapter allows the men a bit more of the spotlight, but only to show how they are undone by the women.  “Because the first chapters are seen through subjective perspectives of these two characters,” says the director, “I’ve used a lot of close-ups of the eyes, watching something. And also I’ve employed exact point of view shots where the cameras would act as those characters’ eyes, and we’re seeing the story through those characters’ eyes, and when these POVs are shot, it’s shot with handheld camera, so that I could give it the sense, a natural sense gives a subtle shape to the camera, as it’s affected by your breathing and so forth.”

The film sees Park collaborating once again with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. “We are brothers,” says Park, “rather than just say we are colleagues working together – that’s how familiar with each other, and we are as close as if we are families.” The director begins hammering out ideas with Chung-hoon well into pre-production, as early as the screenwriting stage. “At the inception, he’s there,” the director says, “and once the script is there, we sit down together, literally side by side, and work on the storyboard together constructing these shots. So much so that it’s really difficult to say ‘I’m doing this much, or he’s this much responsible for a shot.’”

The camera work echoes the push and pull of the characters, something that originally attracted Park to Water’s FINGERSMITH. “The first bed scene,” he remembers, “between the two characters, when they’re essentially under the pretense that this is an educational exercise, ‘What do men want?’ ‘I don’t know, maybe this is what they want.’ So, they’re lying to each other about the true feelings, how they’re in love with each other,  their sexual desire for each other. They actually know, they can see through their lie, but yet they keep up this pretense in a role play.”

This roleplay reflects the roleplay of the whole film, with Sookee the pickpocket pretending to be a handmaiden. And of course the roleplay they have to maintain about their relationship in front of the male characters of the film. “Two women who are attracted to each other, staging a roleplay where one of them pretends that they’re the opposite sex, that’s fascinating,” says Park, who credits that and the infamous ‘thimble scene’ as what hooked him in the novel.  He continues: “and this structure where, in part one, the story is seen through one character’s eyes. In part two, the same story gets told, but this time through the other character’s eyes. It reveals other bits of information we weren’t privy to before, and it changes our own perspective of the stories, awfully fascinating.”

Resetting the film in 1930’s Korea was not just a necessity for doing a period film on a reasonable budget.  It offered new possibilities for the story.  “There was something from the source material that I just could not take out,” the director explains, “without which the story wouldn’t stand.” He points to the idea of the modern mental institution, something just becoming understood in the time of the novel.  Most importantly though, there had to be strong class difference. These two points lead him to the 1930’s.  “In Korean history this was the only period of time where the class system was still very much a part of Korean society,” he says, “and there was also this notion, or at least for some people, of a modern mental institution.” But this also being the era of Japanese occupation presented another opportunity. “Having one character be a Korean woman and the other a Japanese woman brought one more layer of difference between them to the dynamic,” Park says, “in that they are from two different nationalities. They are from two nations which bear animosity toward each other.” This adds a new obstacle for their love.  It also allows the director to mock his most despicable character, a self-hating Korean desperate to prove himself more Japanese than his fellow countrymen.

Overall, THE HANDMAIDEN is a sparkling costume heist film (maybe the first of that particular genre) that will not disappoint fans of the source material, while still being different enough to preserve the sanctity of the novel. It’s definitely the hottest film I’ve ever seen in a movie theater and I believe Chan-wook Park’s best film ever.  THE HANDMAIDEN opens in Austin this weekend.

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