Since my review of The Handmaiden was published, some of you have agreed with my take on the film while others couldn’t disagree with me more. Still, I can’t say I was expecting famed director Park Chan-wook to have read my review, but that’s exactly what I found out just minutes before meeting him.
Kim Tae-Ri, Park Chan-Wook, Kim Min-Hee
And to my slight surprise, he did, in fact, agree with some of my more critical points. But, more importantly, we were able to have a frank discussion that provided a hell of a lot of insight into the film and his thought process. In just under an hour, there was much we spoke about, including his admiration for Sarah Waters and her approval of The Handmaiden, the extended version of the film many of us didn’t get to see, the women he consulted for the movie and, yes, his thoughts on the male gaze.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
AfterEllen.com: How long have you been familiar with the novel Fingersmith and what about it made you want to make this movie?
Park Chan-wook: Four years. It was the same case as with Oldboy where the producer, Syd Lim, he came up to me and recommended this book. He, in turn, had been recommended this book by his wife who had read it first. And while I was reading the book four years ago, I immediately fell in love with it even before I was finished. So much so that I went to look for all of Sarah Waters’ other books as well and read them all. I even went to visit Whitstable, which is featured in Tipping the Velvet.
AE: Have you watched the adaptations of her books that the BBC famously adapted?
PC: Just Fingersmith.
AE: The idea then to adapt this book but put an original spin on it, was that always your intention? Or knowing that the BBC already did it “by the book,” did that change things for you?
PC: It was kind of a choice that was made during my reading of the book, even before I finished the book, in terms of what kind of original spin I would take on the material. Or maybe it’s to do with my basic attitude towards treating original source material. I think that doing an adaptation “by the book” as it were is not the best way to respect the original source material. If you are adapting it into a different medium, which might have different characteristics, to shape the adaptation to best fit the medium is the proper way to respect the source material.
The basic attitude that I subscribe to in treating a source material is I treat it as an experience of reading and I base my filmmaking on my experience. I believe I have experienced something I have read if it’s something that I’ve registered in my head.
While I was reading Fingersmith, a thought came to my mind. As I was reading part two, where we have pages and pages of description about Maud’s childhood, reading through that I felt I really wanted to give to this little girl called Maud a happy ending. And by happy ending, I wanted Maud to acquire her love with Sue and also I wanted to give Maud a happy ending by having those men who were bad towards her have their comeuppance. While I was reading this book, I would compare myself as someone who would watch a TV soap opera and getting so involved emotionally and rooting for the hero and saying, “Oh the bad guy should be punished.” I could also compare myself to a Dickinson reader and rooting for a hero and hating the villain. I noticed how much I ended up responding to the story as a very pure, childish reader. It goes to say something about the strength of Sarah Waters’ writing to make her readers respond like that.
AE: Let’s stay with Sarah Waters for a bit. You’ve worked with adaptations in the past and you’ve mentioned respecting the source material but to do that you have to have your own original spin on it. I’m curious: did you meet with Sarah? Talk to her? Or is it your understanding that to be able to do this kind of work you do have to be somewhat distant from the writer of these original pieces?
PC: I don’t think it’s a very good idea for me to meet with the original writer, original author, and to receive guidance or advice on adapting the source material. And this is the case the more I admire the original author. Because I know myself to be not very strong willed. Especially when it’s the case where I’m faced with someone that I admire so much. Whatever the author would say, I would try and do as the author has advised. And it would limit my imagination and I would find myself clinging on to those words of the author. That’s why I think it’s the right thing to do to avoid a situation where I’m engaged in a conversation about how to adapt the source material. And as a result, I find myself more curious about the author’s reaction after the film is finished, which I had an opportunity to find out recently in a phone call with Sarah Waters. And I was so happy and pleased to hear that she had enjoyed seeing the film.