Inside ‘The Handmaiden’: A Lesbian Erotic Thriller and the Sexiest Film of the Year

Acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook (‘Oldboy’) opens up about his upcoming film over beers with Jen Yamato in Austin, Texas.

Magnolia Pictures

Halfway through his first trip to Texas, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook found himself on a tour of a picturesque religious compound notorious for the sex crimes of a cult-like spiritual leader. Five years ago, its once-venerated guru Prakashanand Saraswati fled the country, escaping a trial that saw him sentenced in absentia to over two centuries in prison. On a hot Texas afternoon in September, the director of Oldboy strolled the grounds with his Leica taking in the palatial white granite architecture.

Park was taken by the sights and the lurid true tale, soaking in the experience as he seems to all his travels. The director and avid photographer had come to Austin to screen his Cannes hit The Handmaiden at Fantastic Fest following its Toronto premiere. He’d tasted Texas BBQ. He’d shopped for trinkets along South Congress Ave. When we met to discuss his period lesbian love-thriller over fine Texan beers this week, he was still marveling at the beauty and hidden perversity forever tied to the Barsana Dham.

“It reminded me a little of Uncle Kouzuki in The Handmaiden,” he joked of one of the many deliciously complex characters in his new film, speaking through his traveling companion and translator, Wonjo Jeong. “I’m a photographer. I thought going to a place like this I’d be able to capture some absurd images on my camera. The power that religion has over people, how it draws people in, is always amazing.”

Park, arguably Korea’s most famed and celebrated filmmaker, made his directorial debut in 1992 and scored his first huge hit in 2000 with the record-breaking J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, a military thriller about a mysterious murder between soldiers from North and South Korea. In 2003 he released his intoxicatingly elegiac revenge thriller Oldboy and became forever synonymous with its brand of hyperviolent, perverse brutality.

But there are stratums to Park’s films, even as they tend toward the extremes of genre, from the two other films that round out his Vengeance Trilogy to his vampire tale Thirst to 2013’s Stoker, the gothic potboiler that marked his English-language Hollywood debut. Consider: When he describes to me the walrus carved from walrus tusk he’d just bought at one of Austin’s eclectic thrift stores, the conversation winds its way to a documentary he’d enjoyed, also on the subject of discovering extraordinary objects in the most unexpected places.

“It was a documentary called Finding Vivian Maier,” Park recalled. “She worked as a nanny to children and at one estate sale one young man bought a lot of her films, and that’s how this photographer Vivian Maier came to light. It provided lots of inspiration for Carol, starring Rooney Mara.”

Once upon a time Park, now 53, was a devoted cinephile and film critic, although he laments he has no time to watch as many films as he’d like to these days. A common misconception about him, according to him, is that he’s a Tarantino-esque film obsessive, although he admits that Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo made him want to become a director, still lingers in his subconscious. “After I made my first film I kind of forgot about Hitchcock. But when I started working on Stoker I realized that I hadn’t really forgotten about Hitchcock at all,” he said, speaking softly and deliberately. The initial script by Wentworth Miller was so heavily influenced by Shadow of a Doubt, even Matthew Goode’s creeper uncle shared the same name as his spiritual predecessor.

“I actually wanted to dilute the influence, the smell of Hitchcock through my rewrite of the script and through directing the film. At one point I wanted to change the name Uncle Charlie to something else but the studio insisted that the name was kind of stuck, and couldn’t I just leave it at that?”

“Looking back,” he added, “I realized that I was indeed influenced clearly strongly by Hitchcock in a positive way, in this concept of ‘pure cinema,’ where you use only the sound, image, and editing—the pure cinematic devices. And in using them only do you convey a sense of shock to the audience. That concept, that methodology, that pure cinematic approach through which you move the audience psychologically is something that I subscribe to.”

Seated at a long wooden table in the corner of a bustling Austin brewery armed with sampler flights of local craft beers, we toasted with a Bavarian-style lager dubbed the “Hell Yes,” and Park admitted that he prefers Texas BBQ to Korean BBQ. “I just don’t like marinated meat,” he smiled. “Please know this: Not all Koreans are fans of bulgogi.” He is, however, something of a beer connoisseur, although homegrown suds have a ways to go. “I’m really into the Belgian beers, Belgian ales. Korean beer is notorious for being the worst beer in the entire world,” he lamented. “But recently, a savior has risen in Korea! One of the big beer breweries has started to brew ales. It’s very good.”

Back home with friends when bar-hopping turns to karaoke—practically a national pastime—“that’s my cue to go home.”

“I envy those people who can play like that,” he mused. “But I wasn’t born that way, unfortunately. I’ve overcome a lot of my shyness over the years. Now I can do interviews and go onstage to introduce my films. It’s always a difficult thing to do but the work has transformed me. Still, when I walk down the street and see myself on one of those big LED screens on the side of the building, I cringe.”

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Park’s films, however, are quite the opposite: Bold, ballsy, stylish, and often intensely brutal, they’ve come to represent the pinnacle of Korea’s art house extreme. His is a signature that’s difficult to replicate. But despite not yet having seen Spike Lee’s American remake of Oldboy—itself an adaptation of a Japanese manga—he’s all for the reinterpretation of art. If he had to remake one of Lee’s films, Park mulled, “it would be Jungle Fever.”

In The Handmaiden, October’s sweeping and engrossing thriller set during Japanese colonial rule in Korea and adapted loosely from Sarah Waters’ England-set novel Fingersmith, director Park’s stamp is as evident as ever. Newcomer Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee, a young Korean woman who’s sent to work as the new handmaiden to Japanese noblewoman Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who lives in quiet obedience to a Korean-born uncle who’s obsessed with Japanese and Western culture. The twist—at least, the first twist—is that Sook-hee’s really there to help swindle Hideko out of her fortune and take her place. The rest of The Handmaiden’s sublime treasures are best unspoiled save for the fact that the two women fall headlong in love—making for some steamy lesbian sex scenes that seized critics’ attention out of Cannes, as well as Park’s most romantic film to date.

Park had wanted for a long time to portray a homosexual character onscreen, particularly in a Korean society that rarely sees such stories told. “I knew I wanted to deal with the subject someday,” he said. “What kind of homosexual film? The kind where the protagonist, who is homosexual, is not afraid of his or her sexuality—and is not suffering under the critical eye of a conservative society. I wanted to make a film free of all that.”

He sips another sampler glass, a crisp pilsner a little too dry for his tastes. “In this film, for the characters who have fallen in love with each other, it’s just a matter of course. There’s no question about it. The issue they have to overcome is entirely something else, in that one is supposed to be deceiving the other: Am I allowed to love the person I’m tricking? There are other issues besides being the same sex.”

In addition to depicting the magnetic attraction between its two female protagonists in tender and exquisite detail, The Handmaiden features some of the most frankly sensual lesbian lovemaking scenes since Blue is the Warmest Color. Like that film’s same-sex sex scenes, the film risks incurring criticisms of a leering male gaze, but they also unfold with a keen sense of humor that makes the steamy symmetry of his actresses’ nude gymnastics less lascivious and more lovingly real.

“The humor is the crux,” he emphasized. “These sex scenes aren’t all about the panting, the sweating, the going through the motions. They constantly talk to each other, and they look at each others’ face, and they make jokes.”

Sook-hee and Hideko are also two complex characters whose inner workings reflect bigger themes as The Handmaiden unspools one layer after another. In transplanting the original novel’s setting to colonial Korea, Park seeded The Handmaiden with pointed cultural criticisms loaded with meaning for the Korea of today as much as that of yesterday.

“Films in Korea thus far which have depicted the colonial period were all about independent movements or resistance fighters,” he said. “But this film is all about falling in love with a Japanese woman. The villain is actually of Korean ethnicity. His mind, his inner workings, shows that of a typical Japanese sympathizer—colonial lackey—at the time. We have enough stories and films about those who fought against Japanese imperialists. Why don’t we show and talk about the Koreans who worshipped the Japanese?”

He elaborated: “My point is that this continues to this day. The only thing that’s different is they no longer worship the Japanese imperialists—in their place, they worship the Americans. And rather than idolize American values, they have internalized American values.”

In recent years, Park lent his voice to public petitions protesting his government’s arms sales to Israel and the censorship of the Busan Film Festival (“Compared to the people who put everything they have on the line for these fights and causes, it’s nothing,” he said.) But it’s no coincidence that Park says what worries him the most about the world is the unequal distribution of wealth both at home in Korea and across the world at large.

“I’m not saying that everything about America is wrong,” he said. “Neither am I saying that everything from overseas is wrong. I’m saying that everything needs to be in balance between what’s our own and what’s foreign, among those who have the money, the power, and the information—the ruling class. One of the reasons some Americans say that this election is pointless is that whoever wins the election, we’ll end up with the same world where capitalism is king.”

Park also saw in The Handmaiden the chance to actively battle an industry-wide problem he’d started to notice: The underrepresentation of female characters in film. “Certainly my interest in young women has gone up because I’m the father of a daughter,” he said, raising a hoppy IPA to his lips, “and it helped me to realize how in cinema there aren’t many films that deal with the desires of a young woman in an honest way. Films don’t tend to portray women as the main subject. It helped me become aware of this problem.”

He started showing his films to his daughter, who’s now studying art at university, when she was a child—well, all of them except for Oldboy, for obvious reasons. “Because there was a father-daughter relationship I couldn’t bring myself to show it to her,” he said. “She saw it when she went to university. Fortunately she likes my films.” Both women in his life name The Handmaiden as their favorite movie of his.

“I have heard there is a debate at this film festival where a verbal debate is followed by a boxing match,” he smiled, referring to the annual Fantastic Fest spectacle known as the Fantastic Debates, where filmmakers and critics face off over vital cinematic topics and determine the ultimate winner by pounding it out in the ring. “I would love for someone to step up and put this to the test: Prove that all of Park Chan-wook’s films are romantic films.”

It’s ironic to Park, and perhaps a bit frustrating, that he might be known as an artist most concerned with stories of violent revenge—although his films, including The Handmaiden, have that, too. Deep down, he’s got a romantic streak. It peeks out when he describes how, years ago, he met his wife and saw Vertigo for the first time, and thus fell in love twice on the same day. “Creatively I ask her for her opinions and I take a lot of her suggestions,” he said. “And she’s my first love.”

Why, then, does he think his films tend toward boundary-pushing extremes of human behavior, like incest, betrayal, mutilation, and extreme violence? “Because I’ve lived such a boring and mundane life,” he shrugged. “Every storyteller should never confine themselves to the very small limits of their own experience. Rather, they should be able to put themselves in the position of every different kind of human being—and sometimes non-human beings, as well.”

If Park has the ability to put himself in the paws of animals for the sake of art, does he feel bad even years later, for the poor octopi that gave their lives to be eaten by Choi Min-sik in Oldboy, in what’s still one of the most indelible scenes he’s ever filmed?

He considered it, sipping a hoppy red named the “Big Mama,” a dish of bacon-wrapped quail between us. “Not really,” he said. In Korea, live octopus is served sliced into pieces, still wriggling on the plate. What difference does it make if it’s eaten chopped or whole?”

Some cephalopod enthusiasts argue that octopi, with their uncanny abilities to liberate themselves from tanks and multitask, are creatures of consciousness who maybe even have souls. I explained how it’s a thought that haunts me every time I rewatch that scene in Oldboy, the tentacles writhing in Oh Dae-su’s mouth as he renders its owner apart—arguably that film’s most sensual and sensory moment, a visceral collision of art, life, and real violence.

Director Park gave it another moment’s thought. “I’m not sure whether the existence of a soul equates to your level of intellectual ability. Do we say that snappers don’t have souls, but octopi do? If that’s the case, what about cows and pigs?” he countered, a twinkle in his eye. “You’ve seen Babe, right?”