MARRAKECH — Park Chan-wook is one of Korea’s best known-helmers, for his “Vengeance” Trilogy and recent works such as sensual vampire pic “Thirst” and English-language “Stoker,” starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska.
His next feature is inspired by Sarah Waters’ Victorian-era lesbian crime novel “Fingersmith,” previously adapted into the BBC TV series of the same name. The Korean title is “Agassi” and the English title “The Handmaiden.” Pic involves a love story between a mistress and her hand-maiden, which Park is setting set in 1930s Korea, during the period of Japanese occupation.
Park explains that his screenplay has introduced several important innovations to the novel. The secret mystery linked to the birth of the two main female characters no longer features in the story and the role of the male character – who serves as an intermediary between the two women – assumes much greater importance. The helmer says that his story is essentially about “two females and a male.”
The film was originally planned under the same name as the novel, but Park explains that after showing his first draft to the author, they agreed to change the title: “When I showed the script to Sarah Waters she said that she thought that it’s a good screenplay, but is significantly different from her novel and would therefore appreciate it if we could say “inspired by” instead of “based on” the novel. That’s when we agreed to change the title.”
In Park’s two most recent pics – “Thirst” and “Stoker” – he explored themes of eroticism and temptation and he returns to these themes in “The Handmaiden.” By contrast, his earlier films, such as “Old Boy,” focused primarily on themes of vengeance, which he admits continue to fascinate him.
He considers this evolution is not necessarily a definitive trend, and may well change again in his subsequent films. Whereas “Thirst” – about a priest who is transformed into a vampire and develops passionate sexual urges, whose U.S. marketing logline was “Lusting after Sinful Pleasures” – focused on aspects of sin and guilt related to sexuality, he says that for “The Handmaiden,” although exploring “forbidden love” in the historical period in which the story is set, his prime interest is to explore the sexual desires intrinsic to the story. “It’s more about the joy of eroticism, instead of guilt. It’s essentially a liberation from a sense of guilt.”
“I’m not sure whether eroticism is as important as a theme such as death and revenge, which I have explored in several of my previous films,” he explains. “But I am interested in studying human nature and there haven’t been so many films that have honestly studied the question of lust.” Park, who describes himself as an atheist, was raised in a Catholic family in Korea. However, he doesn’t believe that his interest in exploring themes such as sin, guilt and obsession come from his Catholic upbringing and considers that Korean Catholicism is very different from the more traditional teachings of the Catholic church, in countries such as Italy and Spain.
“Korean Catholicism is not so much focused on concepts of guilt and sin,” he says. “It is more progressive and open. Throughout its history it has been critical of Korean society. As an organization it has contributed to the implantation of democracy in Korea.”
The helmer believes that his fascination with guilt comes from his formative experience as a young man. “I grew up during the period of Korean history when there were major student movements in favor of democracy. I saw a lot of my friends taken away by the authorities and many were tortured. Others were forced to enlist in the army well before the obligatory age of conscription, as a punishment. I saw them fight actively against the dictatorship and they suffered as a consequence. I didn’t take an active part and I felt guilty about this. A lot of people from my generation share this feeling. I channeled this sense of guilt into my films.”
Unlike many established helmers, Park also likes to direct short films, the latest of which is “A Rose Reborn.” He says this is primarily because of the creative freedom that this entails: “With the short film format you don’t have to worry about box office or whether the audience will like it.”
Another important factor is that making short films enables him to collaborate with his younger brother Park Chan-kyong, who is a media artist and is also interested in making films. They co-directed the short fantasy-horror film “Paranmanjang” (Night Fishing), which was shot entirely on an iPhone and won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. “Working with my younger brother has been a newfound joy for me,” he says.
Park elaborated on these themes during his master-class at the Marrakech film festival on Tuesday.
He began by explaining that he remembers the precise moment when he decided to become a filmmaker, at the age of 22, when he watched Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” without subtitles and on a very poor VHS copy.
“Hitchcock’s films are like daydreams,” he said. “I was already fascinated by surrealism as an artistic movement and literary influence. I’m interested in the atmosphere of a never-ending dream, something very Kafkaesque, that we can’t escape from.”
He revealed that his first two films were commercial and critical flops, which made it very difficult to provide for his family. He quipped that it wasn’t just a question of getting negative reviews but of being completely ignored.
His breakthrough film was “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the first part in his Vengeance Trilogy. He says that he wrote the script in 24 hours.
One of his prime concerns in all his films is to create a moral dilemma for the audience and applied this principle in this pic. “My starting point was a story about the abduction of a child, one of the worst kinds of crime. But I started to imagine that under certain circumstances it may not be so bad.” During the first half of the film, he deliberately encourages the audience to sympathize with the abducters since the protagonist doesn’t want to harm the child and is essentially motivated by raising money for his sick elderly sister. But in the middle of the film, the child dies accidentally and the focus switches to the father who seeks to avenge his son’s death. The audience progressively sympathizes with him, although they had previously sympathized with the abducters.
Park discussed his recurrent interest in the theme of vengeance. “Vengeance is a constant throughout history, whether in the East or West or in the ancient or contemporary world. I think this is because vengeance is the one thing that sets humans apart from other animals. Through vengeance you don’t gain anything of substance. If your loved one was killed, when you gain revenge you won’t bring them back. People who seek vengeance know this. Vengeance involves placing the greatest amount of energy in the most futile endeavor. This is one of the best ways to reveal human nature.”
Asked whether this meant that he is pessimistic about human nature, he countered “From such stupidity, beautiful things can be born, such as unrequited love.”
He also admitted that whenever wronged in life he tends to turn the other cheek. But at night he begins to imagine different kinds of torture and violence that he can inflict upon his aggressor.
In terms of his approach to directing actors he says that he has a golden rule of thumb: “During pre-production I talk as much as possible with the actors. During production I talk at little as possible with them.”
Discussing the experience of directing his English-language pic “Stoker,” with Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, he says that language didn’t prove to be an obstacle.
“When you work with great actors, they have their own unique way of getting into character. In essence actors are experts in the field of dealing with human emotions. There is a specific jargon associated to this, just as you find professional jargon amongst experts involved in building a skyscraper, and within this context it was easy to communicate.”
The helmer concluded by explaining the prime reason why he likes to direct films: “I love the pleasure of creating a world that may be a bit different from the real world, but which is very self-contained.”
On Wednesday evening, Park received a career tribute at the Marrakech Fest, including a screening of clips from his extensive filmography.
Park was greeted by a standing ovation when he stepped onto the stage for his career tribute, presented by Indian actress, Richa Chadda. He began his speech by explaining that the word “cinema” in Korean sounds like the words, “Young-wha bitch.”
He described himself as being constantly immersed in thinking about ideas for films.
“Filmmakers and other artists are a bit like women from old times,” he said. “As soon as we give birth to one child, we immediately get pregnant again. We’re in a constant state of pregnancy, for at least 30 years. With an important difference, we release our babies into the world straight away.”
Looking back on his career to date, Park says that he has had to come through several painful moments but says it has been a very rewarding life.
He dedicated his award to his wife, Kim Eun-Hee and ended his speech by thanking her “for sharing her husband over all these years with that cinema bitch.”