Interview by Bears Fonte
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.
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 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.”
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.