Park Chan-wook, director of "Oldboy," on new film "The Handmaiden"

“The Handmaiden” is a suspenseful tale about a couple of con artists, a beautiful aristocratic woman and a love affair. 

Magnolia Pictures

South Korean director Park Chan-wook received international acclaim for his stomach-churning thriller “Oldboy” in 2003, and now the renowned filmmaker is back with “The Handmaiden,” based on the novel “The Fingersmith.” 

“The Handmaiden” is an erotic, high-tension thriller and love story between two young women set in Korea during the Japanese occupation. Park, through an interpreter, talked to CBS News about the film and the legacy of “Oldboy.” 

You based the screenplay on the novel, “The Fingersmith.” What about the book attracted you?

I like the fact that in the novel, you’re going through a narrative from one person’s perspective and as a reader, you’re following the story from that person’s perspective, then you come to the shocking conclusion where the story goes and then you go all the way back to the beginning of the story, but this time from a different perspective. You witness the same events and find all these pieces of the puzzle and put it together.


Park Chan-wook on the set of “The Handmaiden.” 

Magnolia Pictures

How did you come up with the idea to put it in colonial-era Korea?  

A BBC miniseries had already adapted the book so when we were thinking we need to set it in a different environment, because we’re Korean, it was natural to think of Korea first. When we thought about setting the story in Korea, there were some elements we needed: class structure of ladies and maids and mental hospitals. These were the most important elements of the story, and looking at different stages of Korean history where these two elements could coexist was the time of Japanese occupation. It ended up helping us and allowing for a number of different layers to come into the story.  

If you look at the big picture, this is a love story between a Japanese person and a Korean person and in the original novel, it has a difference between classes, but with this setting, I was also allowed to give the two people a difference in nationalities, which is yet another obstacle for them to find love between not just two different nations but two that are enemies. I thought that would make the dynamic very interesting.

Why didn’t you choose to cast any Japanese actors in the film?

Because this character Hideko is somebody who has come to Korea and has grown up surrounded by Koreans and she’s somebody who is very fluent in both Korean and Japanese. For her, Japanese language is something that feels forced on her because she’s forced to do these readings of erotic literature which she finds disgusting and horrible.

It has a negative image for her, so in this context, rather than cast a Japanese actress and training her to speak Korean, considering this is a film that will be released in Korea for the Korean audience, first and foremost, casting the Korean actress and training her in Japanese language would make more sense.

Having said that, I wanted to make as much of an effort as I could to make sure even fully a Japanese audience, the issue of language would be as small as possible and that meant I had her rigorously trained in Japanese language so that as much as she could, she would sound authentic.  

South Korea is very conservative and in this film there’s lesbian sex and violence. How was the movie received?

I actually observed a phenomenon where young girls would take their moms to the movie and contrary to their expectations, their mothers would say, “This film is beautiful. It’s about love.” And in Korea, grannies who get together for lunch and a movie -- I’ve heard that a lot of them are getting together to see this. And while it is true that Korean society is quite conservative, it is also very dynamic and constantly changing.

Compared to how much I was concerned right at the beginning, this movie came up against no opposition and no hatred. I don’t think it’s particularly because I made a really good film or anything like that. This is a big commercial film in Korea, but it’s not the first film to address homosexual love.

What did you think of the American adaptation of “Oldboy”?

It’s a well-known fact that in America a lot of audiences don’t like seeing foreign language films and don’t like having to read subtitles when they go see a movie and about the situation, it’s not something to complain about because it’s not going to change. It’s just the way things are and if through a remake, more Americans can learn about my original film because they’ve seen the film and realize it’s a remake, then that’s great.

But what about the film itself?

I haven’t seen it yet. When it was released, I had so many things going on at the time so I missed the opportunity. When I was studying film, Spike Lee was one of my heroes. He was one of the most pioneering filmmakers of the day and all the actors in that film were actors I really liked as well. It made me really want to see it. It still makes me want to see it.

But whether it’s good or bad, I imagine I’ll have a strange feeling if I get the chance to see it. It would be kind of like seeing myself in a distorted mirror, to see a distorted image of myself and to see this movie that takes the world I created and changes things here and there. I think it would feel strange. It’s like a woman putting on the same makeup every day and having a stranger put it on for her and put a mirror in front of her and say, “Here -- have a look.” That’s the kind of feeling I imagine. 

“The Handmaiden” opens in U.S. theaters Friday. 

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