Park Chan-wook: 'Be prepared to be criticized for your choices'

Story highlights

  • South Korean director Park Chan-wook has been honored twice at the Cannes Film Festival
  • His latest film "The Handmaiden" sees the director return to his native South Korea
  • Set during the era of Japanese colonialism, the plot was inspired by Sarah Waters' "Fingersmith"

(CNN)When we meet at the Korean Cultural Center in London, the first thing I see of Park Chan-wook is the back of his head.

The acclaimed director and one-time film critic is perusing the center's movie archive, eyes fixed on titles from years past. For an achingly long moment he's oblivious to my company.
    It's the only awkward instant in an interview ripe with possibilities: after all, we're sitting down to discuss what might be this year's steamiest film on the right side of good taste.
    "The Handmaiden", launched at Cannes and screening at the London Film Festival, is Park's homage to "Fingersmith" by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. It's a historical crime tale wrapped in lust and psychosexual drama, for which Park has transported the narrative from nineteenth century England to 1930s colonial era Korea and Japan, putting the director firmly back on home soil after his first Hollywood foray with "Stoker" in 2013.
    Park Chan-wook
    The plot, drip-fed via a concertinaed narrative, tells the story of a young pickpocket-turned-handmaiden, sent to a country estate to secure the confidence of an heiress, before nudging her towards marriage with a fellow swindler posing as a Japanese Count. Or at least that's the story behind part one of the three act film, paced out in the Jo-ha-kyu style of Japanese theater.
    If we've learned anything from Park's oeuvre, it's not to trust a straightforward narrative.

    Sex scene? Ask a woman

    Among Park's calling cards is his ability to raise the blood pressure -- and the stakes -- in the bedroom. "Oldboy"'s couple horrified audiences with its overtones of Greek tragedy, meanwhile "Thirst"'s affair proved outright fatal. "The Handmaiden" provides another dangerous liaison in Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sookee her maid (Kim Tae-ri), circling one another while afraid to voice a love that dare not speak its name.
    Kim Min-hee and newcomer Kim Tae-ri in "The Handmaiden".
    The lesbian couple and no-half-measures sex scenes have drawn comparisons to 2013's Palme D'or winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color". A fraught production with tension between director Abdellatif Kechiche and his leads, actors Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux later went public expressing their dissatisfaction with Kechiche's methods.
    So what, I ask Park, should directors avoid when it comes to sex on screen?
    "I would suggest that from the scriptwriting stage you ask for advice from many people around," he explains through a translator. "And when I say ask those around you, I mean women."
    "Make sure scenes don't come across as a male gaze and that they are not in any way objectifying women and sex," Park continues. "On the day never come up with something that was never talked about [with the actors]... Even if you're the kind of director that really loves to be spontaneous and prepared to do things in an impromptu kind of manner, please don't be like that."

    Should films break boundaries?

    The Korean maestro provides a caveat to his considered approach: "That's not to say you have to stay within the boundaries of political correctness if there is something that you genuinely, artistically, want to express."
    Beyond the boundaries of political correctness is Lady Hideko's uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a Japanophile with few scruples and many kinks. His proclivity for smut fiction finds an audience in wealthy colonial men -- the kind of people who get their kicks from the Marquis de Sade. How Kouzuki entertains his clients is better left unsaid.
    Lady Hideko and her handmaiden Sookee.
    "You have to be prepared to be criticized for your choices," Park says. "In other words, even if you think people will say bad things about it and criticize it, if you still think it has artistic merit, you should do it."
    According to Variety, earlier this year distributor CJ Entertainment sought to downplay the film's lesbian elements. Homosexuality is legal in South Korea but gay marriage is not, and in a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, 59% of Koreans said they didn't think society should accept homosexuality.
    Park is bullish on the subject, saying he owes a debt to Korean LGBT indie flicks that precede him. "I don't really believe that I was particularly confronting a taboo or whether I attained the title of having broken down barriers with this film," he argues, perhaps modestly. "I was able to make this film [on the back of those films], and hopefully on the back of this film, in turn subsequent movies dealing with the subject matter could be made."

    'I'm not an auteur'

    One can't help but feel these directors would be standing on the shoulders of a giant. Park's films -- twice honored at Cannes -- have achieved a cult status to the point where, like fellow genre-hopper Quentin Tarantino, he can be self-referential. In "The Handmaiden" we're even given a tongue-in-cheek reference to that scene in "Oldboy" -- arguably the most notorious, and certainly talked about, to ever come out of Korean cinema.
    Like Tarantino or Alfred Hitchcock (whose "Vertigo" inspired a young Park), a Park Chan-wook film is easily recognizable. So why does he resist the title of auteur?
    "When you think of the original definition of auteur, it is one who has a consistent body of work, or someone who creates a unified impression," he argues. "You could also say such an auteur would use a specific and particular way of expression.
    "The auteur is repeating the world that the auteur is creating... I don't necessarily think that I fit in within that definition when it comes to the notion of consistency or repetition."
    But what of the Vengeance Trilogy ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance")? There's a clear line between those three films at least. Park's brow furrows, then he smiles.
    "It is me who called that series of films the Vengeance Trilogy," he concedes. "So even if I don't like the label auteur, I take responsibility for it!"
    "The Handmaiden", released in South Korea, opens in the US on October 21 and the UK on February 17.