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Cannes: Is Park Chan-wook Playing Games When He Calls ‘Handmaiden’ Cute?

The Handmaiden Cannes
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

When the director of “Oldboy” and “Stoker” calls his new movie “cute” it is time to ask whether the Korean maestro has lost his mind or is playing some kind of elaborate parlor game.

The parlor setting would be eminently appropriate for Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” which plays this weekend in Cannes’ main competition. The film is an adaptation of sorts of British novelist Sarah Waters’ Victoria era “Fingersmith.” Park has relocated the film both temporarily and geographically, to early 20th century Japanese-occupied Korea, a period of decadence and turmoil.

“In order to bring the Victorian setting of the original novel to Korea, it had to be the 1930s. It had to be a time where the hierarchical society still exists, when wealthy people owned personal servants; and a time where psychiatric hospitals, one of the major settings of the film, existed. These only came to being in Korea during the Japanese colonial era” Park said with a wink, when Variety caught up with him in Korea earlier this month.

“With so many juicy small details here and there, I would say it is the most colorful work of mine,” he adds while still not quite addressing the point.

“It’s not a theme that’s been dealt with in Korea’s commercial film industry, so it could be called unique,” he told local media, while spinning out the climax.

The tangential approach seems to be another attempt by Park to keep the film’s lesbian component as fresh and as possible and to save up its shock value for as close as possible to its festival and commercial launch.

Earlier this year, when financier and world sales agent CJ Entertainment announced that it had licensed the picture in over 140 territories, including Amazon for the U.S., the company contacted Variety seeking to play down the same-sex plotline for a few more months longer.

Sweet or no, expect some fireworks. The project was brought to Park, by Lim Seung-yong, who previously worked introduced him to the manga that later became “Oldboy.” “I was charmed by the book. Each character is vivid and alive, and the dramatic reversal at the end was surprising. I thought it was a good timing for me to make a Korean-language film as well, because my last piece was an English-language one,” Park said.

Park is held in massive esteem by both the Korean industry and by Hollywood, but that may come at both a personal and a professional price. He has a reputation as a detail-obsessed monomaniac, and someone who makes cast and crew work long hours. Park suggests that obsession is also a façade.

“I’m as worried as everybody else, but since everyone is looking to me, I can’t be fazed. I have to be like a captain leading a ship. I wish I could be a cold person.”