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Park Chan-wook talks about Handmaiden, octopuses and more

Park Chan-wook

I’ve now lost count of the number of times that Park Chan-wook has come to London. But it’s always nice to see him, especially when there’s his latest film to enjoy as part of a retrospective of his work at the London East Asia Film Festival.

Q+A at the Picturehouse Central after Handmaiden
Q+A at the Picturehouse Central after Handmaiden

We got to see the amazing Handmaiden at the BFI London Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, but that didn’t stop us going again at LEAFF on Friday 21 October. We had a good moderator for the Q+A afterwards. I was miles away from the stage, but I think it was Danny Leigh who co-hosts BBC TV’s flagship film review programme. I didn’t catch the name of the moderator at Saturday’s BFI talk (22 October) which was part of BAFTA’s Screenwriter Lecture Series, but he fulfilled his role of simply prompting Park to say what he wanted to say. I still recoil with embarrassment at the memory of the Q+A following the London premiere of Lady Vengeance in 2005/6. Fortunately both audiences and moderators have got better acquainted with Park’s oeuvre since then.

The Handmaiden Q+A (photo: LEAFF)
The Handmaiden Q+A (photo: LEAFF)

From the Q+A after Handmaiden on 21 October we learned the following:

  • It was the wife of Park’s producer who came across Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. Park himself was engrossed from the first scene in the book. He loved the episode of the handmaiden character picking pockets in a theatre, and in adapting that for Handmaiden he chose to transpose it to a festival at a Buddhist temple. Sadly, in the interest of running time, that scene got cut. (I hope we get it as an extra in the DVD release)
  • Why did he set Handmaiden in colonial era Korea? Well in part because the BBC Fingersmith adaptation had already covered the ground of setting it in Victorian England. Also, setting it in colonial Korea enabled an additional obstacle to be put in the way of the two central characters’ coming together. In the novel, the two characters have to overcome two barriers in order to join in their relationship of equals: firstly, the obstacle of their different social classes; secondly, the fact that each is deceiving the other as part of the overall plot. Park introduces a third obstacle: that of race, as the mistress is Japanese and the handmaiden is Korean. This additional obstacle means that it is even more moving when the two lovers came together.
  • Did it make a difference having a female co-scriptwriter? Yes and no. Park has been working with Jung Seo-kyung since Lady Vengeance. (Her credits include those Park movies listed on Asianwiki plus Stoker). But, according to Park: “if it weren’t for her I might not have had the audacity to film this.”
  • What is his approach to rehearsing? He doesn’t do a lot of blocking rehearsals except for scenes involving a lot of choreography (eg fight scenes). Instead, he tries to make sure that the cast spend a lot of time together. In Handmaiden, it helped that Kim Tae-ri was a fan of Kim Min-hee and wanted to spend time with her, calling her 언니 all the time.
  • How did he go about filming the sex scenes? Were there fewer members of the crew on set for those? Park got these out of the way as early and as quickly as possible. That way they wouldn’t be hanging over the actresses’ heads for the rest of the shoot. Getting them out of the way at the beginning enabled the actresses to move on and focus on the rest of the movie rather than be nervous about what was to come. For these scenes Park adjusted his normal rule of not doing a lot of blocking rehearsal. Instead he ensured that rehearsals (with the actresses wearing yoga outfits) gave confidence that the cameras were in the right place, enabling the actual scenes to be shot in one or at most two takes. Only female members of the crew were on set for the takes.
  • What did Park learn from his Stoker experiences in Hollywood? How to shoot fast. For Thirst, the shooting took 100 days. Stoker only took 40. Based on their experiences on Thirst his Korean crew thought Handmaiden would take around 120 days, but he got through it in 67.
  • How does Park as a director deal with pressures from the producer? As Park himself was the producer of Handmaiden he had two egos to battle out issues in his head. Based on his experiences of Hollywood producers, he has created a studio executive character which he has in his head, asking the challenging commercial questions even as Park is shooting.
  • Does Park have an obsession with violence and revenge? Park is not trying to amp up the volume, or presenting violence because he likes it. He is simply presenting that level of violence that is necessary in the context of the film and that is consistent with the required level of expression.
  • Does Park have an obsession with the octopus? No. The boneless sea creature that Choi Min-sik ate alive in Oldboy is 낙지. The writhing object in the basement in Handmaiden is 문어. Two different words in Korean. Choi Min-sik’s character in Oldboy has been separated from living creatures for 15 years. That’s why he wants to eat live squid. It is therefore appropriate to have a scene involving 낙지 in the film. In Handmaiden the Korean audience will associate the octopus in the basement with a famous Japanese erotic print. That means they know what happens in the basement without Park having to film what is depicted in the print. If, in a future movie, the plot calls for another boneless sea creature such as a baby calamari (here the Korean translator’s range of English vocabulary for squid-like creatures was understandably running out) Park won’t hesitate to include one. But that doesn’t mean he has an obsession with eight-legged boneless sea creatures.

BFI screening

The BFI / BAFTA talk was preceded by an all-too-rare screening of Park’s collaboration with his younger brother, Park Chan-kyong, the short film Night Fishing. It was good to be reacquainted with the film – particularly the music by Baik Hyun-jhin’s and Jang Young-gyu’s Uhuhboo Project, who get a substantial amount of screen-time at the beginning of the movie.

Uhuhboo Project at the start of Night Fishing
Uhuhboo Project at the start of Night Fishing

Park also enjoyed seeing it again: “I last saw it a long time ago. It’s better than I remember it,” he laughed. It was his first collaboration with his brother who is two years his junior. When they were at university they had once joked that they could make films together, “like the Coen brothers,” but Park Chan-kyong instead went on to focus on art. Korean traditional culture, and in particular shamanism, had always been an important theme for Chan-kyong. But for Chan-wook Night Fishing was his first real encounter with such themes and it “awoke the Korean sensibilities that had been dormant in my consciousness.”

The shaman who guides the soul of the dead fisherman to the afterlife
The shaman who guides the soul of the dead fisherman to the afterlife

Park felt he had to go on to explain certain aspects of the shamanistic gut that forms the second half of Night Fishing. In particular, he elaborated on the meaning of the long cotton cloth which the shaman cuts through the middle as she walks along its length. The cloth symbolises the path that the deceased spirit has to walk to reach the next life: the shaman is paving the way for the soul, and the rice grains that are sprinkled onto the cloth represent the resources that the spirit needs along that journey.

Park Chan-wook introduces Night Fishing at the BFI
Park Chan-wook introduces Night Fishing at the BFI

Park’s next collaboration with his brother, Day Trip (2012) also explored aspects of traditional Korean culture, this time pansori singing. Park explained that one of the philosophies of his collaboration with his brother was the spirit of guerilla film-making – travelling light and being ready for anything.

At this point in the discussion I must have nodded off, because the next thing in my notebook records, without any context, that the idea for Oldboy came to Park while he was peeing in a public urinal. After that bombshell I must have zoned out again, to come back to consciousness when the discussion was opened to members of the audience. Then my notes start making sense again.

Park Chan-wook Q+A after Night Fishing
Park Chan-wook Q+A after Night Fishing
  • When directing, how does Park balance cinematic style and form with the storyline itself? Does style ever get in the way of content? Park responded with a specific example from an early film (from his description, The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream, 달은… 해가 꾸는 꿈, 1997) in which there is a scene in which a gangster and a good guy are in a bar watching a bargirl. Both are falling for her at the same time, and this is illustrated through Point of View shots. To illustrate the moment when the gangster falls for her, Park uses the zoom to take a close-up of the girl; for the same moment for the good guy Park tracks in to the girl on a dolly. For the gangster, use of the zoom means the man doesn’t have to move: he simply grabs the girl he wants. For the good guy, he actually approaches the girl himself. The two ways of painting the same moment support the story itself by enhancing the characterisation of the two men.
  • How does Park approach adapting a text such as Fingersmith or the Oldboy manga? For Park, it’s no different from creating a story out of one’s own experiences. Reading a book creates images in the brain; similarly news items and life experiences also leave an impression on the brain. Books are just another source of images and ideas. When reading Zola’s Thérèse Raquin felt is if that was the sort of book he would have written if he was a writer. Similarly, when reading Fingersmith he was excited by the story, but also wanted different things to happen to the characters (just as, when you’re watching a soap you might want two characters to get married). Sarah Waters has watched Handmaiden twice, so she seems to like what Park has done to her novel.
  • Does Park aim his films at an international or a Korean audience? While he doesn’t want his films to be incomprehensible to an international audience, Park has a Korean audience front of mind: he is making films for a Korean audience of the future. He wants his films still to be able to speak to an audience in 50 or 100 years time.

Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden will get a UK theatrical release from Curzon in late February 2017.


2 thoughts on “Park Chan-wook talks about Handmaiden, octopuses and more

    1. Did you fall asleep at the BFI as well ㅋㅋㅋ?

      Seriously though, I found the Q&A at the Picturehouse much more illuminating and focused than the BFI. Or maybe if was the massive spicy chicken Korrito and pint of Somerset scrumpy at lunchtime that made me dozy.

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