The Korean Movie of the Moment: The Handmaiden

By November 4, 2016

I’m a big fan of Korean movies, especially those that have been written and directed by Park Chan-Wook. You may know him for his Vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Old Boy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005). Park weaves a common thread of tragic, stomach churning violence with twisted psychological plot lines into his films, and is known to constantly push the boundaries in the stories that he tells.

Park’s latest film to debut is The Handmaiden, an erotic thriller set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In the film, you witness two women, Sookee (Kim Tae-Ri) and Hideko (Kim Min-hee) fall in love unbeknownst to the Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung Woo) and Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin Woong).

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A sharp contrast to Park’s violently gory films that typically cause me to squirm in my seat, The Handmaiden definitely had less violence and more sexual tension (reminiscent of Blue is the Warmest Color), with a dash of humor. I was blown away by his cinematic vision and storytelling, and was more than impressed by how the cast depicted each character.

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After the screening, Director Park joined the audience members for a fireside chat. Here is what he shared:

On the prep work for the erotic scenes
“When it comes to nudity and sex scenes, the whole preparation starts long before I give the cast a copy of the script,” said the director. “I made sure they knew what kind of film they were getting themselves into. Once they agreed on performing the scenes, then I would let them read the script. Now the thing is: actors need to understand what the characters are going through. If the actors sympathize with the characters emotions, then they are willing to do anything.”

On finding the right cast
“The first actress I cast was Kim Min Hee, who played Hideko. Within two to three days of sending her the screenplay, she said yes. Now finding Kim Tae Hee involved a very lengthy auditioning process. The fortunate thing was that she was a very big fan of Kim Min Hee, and this probably helped in a big way for the romance between the two characters to be authentic.”

On the hardest thing a filmmaker has to do
“Promotion after the film is launched,” he said laughing. “Meeting the audience is fine, but meeting all the journalists is a different story. When a filmmaker makes a film, they pour all their energies into it. All their thoughts are put into the film to the point that they’ve said everything they want to say. The filmmaker must meticulously craft the film. But when you engage in the promotion of the film and you meet all the journalists, you have to go out and explain everything: What your intentions were, what you were trying to say in each scene. I, as a filmmaker, believe my explanation gets in the way of the audiences’ interpretation of the film. When I say anything, it limits it.”

On Korea’s reaction to The Handmaiden
“Contrary to what you may think, there were no boycotts or protests in Korea due to the depiction of sex scenes or homosexuality.”

On what elements of women are fundamentally inspiring to Park Chan-Wook
“While I was making Lady Vengeance, I got really into creating strong, independent, and empowered female characters. That led me to make The Handmaiden with not just one, but two strong women.”

“I am inspired by the empathy of women. I believe women are more capable of sympathizing with other people, compared to men. I always am moved to see this and I always look back on myself to be a better person when I see this. I think my films reflect these personal experiences.”

The Handmaiden is playing now in select U.S. theaters.
+ Special thanks to The Korea Society for organizing the screening of The Handmaiden at the world-famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)