Park Chan-wook is one of modern-day cinema’s bold, ferocious mavericks. Think of that four-minute shot in his 2003 movie Oldboy, where our hero inventively wastes several thugs in a packed corridor and then an elevator, a knife stuck in his back all the while. The South Korean filmmaker made his mark stateside with this dazzling revenge film. (Spike Lee ineptly remade it a decade later.)
The Handmaiden, a striking lesbian love story, has been hailed as the year’s sexiest film. Like Joint Security Area, Park’s 2000 breakthrough exploration of Korea’s partition and its DMZ (border demilitarized zone)—which Bill Clinton once described as “the scariest place in the world”—The Handmaiden explores Korea’s traumatic history. Set in Japan-occupied Korea in the 1930s, it features Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her maid, Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim), who fall in love despite malevolent male influences such as Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Spoiler alert: Sook-hee arrives with the intention of utterly swindling Hideko, controlled by the crook Fujiwara.
Dynamically shot by Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s cinematographer since Oldboy, this sensual thriller is peppered with historical and political heft. As in Stoker, Park’s unnerving English-language debut, there are arresting images and crackling sexual currents.
Cerebral and courtly in conversation—translated by his trusty Kiwi-accented producer Wonjo Jeong—Park, 53, is the avuncular college professor you wish you had. From L.A.’s L’Ermitage hotel, he phoned Playboy.com to talk love, fate and change between sips of black coffee.
Do you see your work as a challenge to films that treat female desire as if it didn’t exist?
To have female desire expressed in an honest way: Frankly there haven’t been many films that have depicted it. I don’t think it’s only female audiences who want to see films like this. I myself want to see films that express female desire in an honest way. I’ve made films with strong female characters ever since Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Not only do female characters rarely express their desire in films; if they do, they are punished for it. I wanted to make a film where the female characters pursue their pleasures and are not punished for doing so. I wanted to make a film where they engaged in this great, joyful sex.
You’ve worked with actresses from Nicole Kidman to Mia Wasikowska. Tae-ri Kim’s performance here is special.
Look at her performance: When she first arrives at the mansion she’s all wide-eyed and scared. It makes you want to protect her. Through the journey she turns into this very strong character who attains this power—through love, which she finds with Hideko. You see Sook-hee as this strong woman, with this giant leap she has made all the way back from the first time you saw her. To be able to express all this range, for sure Tae-ri’s a very special actress.
An enduring idea in your films is the individual standing up against fate.
I do like to depict characters who do not yield to their fate. Whether or not they succeed is not as important. That they do not give in is important. Even if they fail, even if they are defeated in their efforts, there is something noble in the fight itself. During my years at university, I was witnessing the student movement for democracy in South Korea. Seeing those nameless heroes give themselves for that cause, I was very moved. This has led me to subscribe to this belief.
Are you influenced by Nietzsche?
When I was studying philosophy at university, Nietzsche wasn’t the most popular philosopher, clearly. I do despise bourgeois values. There is something about individuals who fight against bourgeois values and boredom—individuals who become more independent to themselves. These ideals are very appealing to me.
Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
Political? These aspects reveal themselves in my films. Some of my films reveal more about my political ideals than others. I do think The Handmaiden falls into that category. This film criticises the idea of male superiority.
Do you think The Handmaiden will change homophobic and patriarchal attitudes?
How much can one film change things? If many writers such as yourself were to write together, that would create enough mass for change. I have heard many testimonies from audiences. A daughter would take her previously homophobic mother to see The Handmaiden. Afterwards the mother would comment that it was a beautiful film, a beautiful love story; “Those two men were so evil.“ When these two women escaped, liberated themselves from the clutches of these men, running across the field, it was a very cathartic moment. When I hear feedback from the audiences like this, I feel very satisfied that I’m doing something for the cause.
As with Stoker’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), there’s a memorable evil uncle, Kouzuki. Do you believe there is a bit of evil in everybody?
That’s right. It’s just like how I think in every evil man, there is some good.
True or false: Your work deals in lively extremes partly because you live a commonplace life.
Yes, that is correct. Good storytellers shouldn’t confine themselves to the limits of their own experience.
There’s a distinctive sense of humor in your work.
Humor does come in handy when I’m making films, and also in other aspects of life. When we are locked in a very serious situation for a long time, humor allows us to take a step back. Humor’s a respite. You’ve drilled deep into the mountain. You’re trying to mine for gold. You’ve been in there for too long. It’s a breath of fresh air, ventilation.
Chung-hoon Chung has been your cinematographer since Oldboy, with deft camera movement and abiding images. Compared to other directors and directors of photography, we have a higher level of collaboration. We have a very close relationship. We see each other a lot when we’re not working on a film together. "What film I should do next? How do you like this script?” We are able to share and discuss all of that. He’s right there from the very beginning of any project. Of course I work on the storyboards with him. He contributes during the writing stage, too. Remember the scene in Thirst, where the ghost is sandwiched between the priest and the dead man’s wife, when they are having sex? That is actually Chong-hoon’s idea.