Park Chan-wook On Sex, Violence, and Sophocles
We talk to the renowned Korean director behind 2004's Oldboy about his upcoming new movie, The Handmaiden.
Park Chan-wook has the kind of uncontainably hyperactive mind where thought spills out unbidden into bodily motion, so that his thinking becomes a kind of performance. As he waits for the translator to relay my questions, he can’t restrain himself from voicing little impatient mmm-hmm’s, as if he were trying to hurry the words out. He listens carefully and eagerly, and then when he gets the gist of a question he springs from his chair and paces the room, gesticulating as he speaks. He tends toward the academic, making his translator sweat with winding, complex sentences dense with nested concepts, citing Sophocles and discussing male gaze, fascism, and the collective-unconscious, understandable in light of his early career as a published film-critic.
We’re here at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons to discuss his newest film, The Handmaiden. It’s a bitch to summarize—psychological thriller? Vengeance narrative? Romance? Erotic mystery?—but a blast to watch, somehow evoking Hitchcock, Bergman, and a sexually liberated Jane Austen. Set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, the movie centers on two women caught in a patriarchal web of deception, exploring a forbidden love as the powerful men around them attempt to enlist them as pawns in their maneuvers for money and prestige. On top of this we have enough double-crossing, identity switching and general chicanery to make you wish you had a notebook handy to keep track of it all, plus what may be some of the steamiest Sapphic sex-scenes put to film for a mainstream movie in recent memory.
The first thing people usually mention about a Park Chan-wook film is the violence, and though there’s plenty of it in The Handmaiden, compared to the blood-bath that is Oldboy (2004) it comes out seeming almost squeamish. The violence in his movies often takes on an epic tone, not unlike the gory crescendos often encountered in classic literature from Homer through Faulkner. I ask if invoking those structures is something he does intentionally. “Those old stories have had a major effect on me—they are embedded in my consciousness, as they are in the collective unconscious. If my movies remind you of these tales, it is likely because they are subconsciously present, that they have left traces in our memory, both for you as a viewer and for me as a director.” He paces, turns, pauses before continuing, not unlike a college professor. “People ask me why there is so much violence in my movies, but look at the old stories—Shakespeare, Sophocles—they have so many elements of violence to them. Violence is something that has been the subject of human stories for a long time now, and that is likely because it has such important effects and causes so many issues in society. It is true that violence has a kind of attraction, that it can be in some sense mesmerizing, but that is not why I depict violence in a “beautiful” manner. I am not trying to glorify it. I do it because it heightens the pain of watching it, and the fear of it. It makes it more effective.”
A new Park Chan-wook movie is an event for Korean cinephiles, not dissimilar to a new Tarantino or Coen brothers release in the levels of anticipation they generate. With Oldboy, he showed himself to be the rare Asian director who is able to capture the attention of the often provincial American moviegoer, and it seems likely he’ll repeat the success with the Handmaiden, as it swoops up festival awards across the globe. But the audience Park Chan-wook claims to write for isn’t so much geographically distant as temporally: “I try to make my films for the audience of the future. There are certain films that audiences are likely to revisit. It’s not every film that is treated this way—it’s only films of value that will stand the test of time,” he explains. “These are the types of films I seek to make. And that translates to me thinking about universality, that this isn’t just a film that can be appreciated by an audience of a certain time, but that it appeals to all time.” It’s an ambitious goal, but if someone is capable of achieving it, Park Chan-wook could be it—a truly global director weaving modern myths so compelling and memorable they just might prove to be timeless.
Written by Sid Feddema