In a recent chat with the L.A. press on the release of his “erotic thriller,” The Handmaiden, noted Korean director Park Chan-wook took a question about directors that had inspired him.
He mentioned Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the film that made him want to be a filmmaker. He also talked about other “visualists,” as he called them — a list ranging from Fellini to Renoir to the also Hitchcock-inspired Brian DePalma, and more — and surmised, through a translator, that among the reasons we don’t have more such “visualists” among today’s directors might be multifold: For one, “young people don’t watch a lot of classic films,” he said. Or perhaps, even if they do, “they’re watching on a small screen. I’m not sure.”
Though he was surer about his next point, which was, “to make ‘visualist’ cinema, you need money.”
By all accounts then, he was well supported with The Handmaiden, an adaption of Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. He translated the story from Victorian England to 1930’s colonial Korea, and it is this setting that the director — already famed for such work as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance — that Park brings to full visual splendor with the help of such longtime below-the-line collaborators as his cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, production designer Seong-hie Ryu, and costume designer Sang-gyeong Jo.
Park said he “collaborates with all heads of departments,” also mentioning composer Yeong-wook Jo and the sound department’s Suk-won Kim, all of them, he adds “equally important,” mentioning that he’s known some of his collaborators since before he was a filmmaker — though since he started out studying film in college, then working as a film critic, that’s not entirely surprising.
But that collaboration will start even before Park knows whether he wants to make the movie — “I’ll talk to them about whether to embark,” he says, asking them their own opinion on the script, the idea. And he asks, if they go ahead, whether they’ll be with him “through all the steps?”
Once they start, the director says it’s not a matter of everyone going off to work on their own with similar inspiration, but rather, each can “freely tell me their thoughts” as they all work together.
In particular, Seong-hie Ryu’s production design is sumptuous, with the film’s main setting being a large country manor where the various deceptions take place. It’s a combination of both Japanese and American design, reflecting the character, Uncle Kouzuki, who is part of the Japanese occupation of Korea, and who aspires to a kind of Western “continentalism” at the same time.
Each design element — from costumes to water gardens in the floor, to the trees and pathways in the gardens outside, and more — reflects the layering of both plot, and motivation. The Guardian has already called the film “a hugely entertaining thriller that has shades of Gaslight (and) Les Diaboliques,” and it competed for a Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Park mentioned that the film was shot mostly in sequence, and mostly on soundstages. All of that contributed to making a film that the Guardian also called “exquisitely designed,” and clearly, the director’s craft collaborators knew what to say, when asked whether they should embark together, one more time.