The Korean phrase for “male gaze” is “male gaze,” I learned earlier this month during an hourlong conversation with Korean master director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). We were discussing his sumptuous new movie, The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s beloved 2002 novel Fingersmith. Park retains much of Waters’s twistier-than-a-Brooklyn-mustache plot, but supplants the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, during Japan’s occupation. The story follows young pickpocket Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) who’s hired by conman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to collect intel from heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) as he attempts to marry her, gaslight her, and rob her of her wealth. What Fujiwara doesn’t account for is Sook-Hee and Hideko’s intense attraction to each other, which complicates and endlessly complicated narrative.
I’ve probably already said too much—what makes The Handmaiden simply exhilarating cinema is its series of unexpected turns. It’s a stunning, funny film with the hottest on-screen sex scene I’ve ever seen in an R-rated movie before. That it occurs between two women is why I asked Park about male gaze, an issue that has been rightly analyzed by critics—the Village Voice’s April Wolfe writes, “Park might be at Peak Male Gaze here,” but that his movie nonetheless transcends it. Whether this is via aesthetics or politics or it happens at all is one of a long list of questions this clever, compassionate film imposes on its viewers.
Through his interpreter Wonjo Jeong (who also served as co-producer on The Handmaiden), Park, who’s married to a woman, told me that one of his goals here was to expose the logical fallacy of homophobia, a particularly pointed message for a movie made in a country where same-sex marriage has not been legalized. “The fact that the biggest studio in Korea just went ahead and put a lot of money into a project like this—by Korean standards this is a big-budget film—and cast one of the biggest stars in Korea and the film went on to become the kind of success where the film is now in the Top 10 of all R-rated films in Korea, that is an encouraging sign,” said Park. An edited and condensed transcript of our further conversation about his film—my favorite of 2016 so far—is below.
JEZEBEL: What drew you to the source material?
PARK CHAN-WOOK (VIA WONJO JEONG): I wasn’t the first to discover this novel, but I was wanting to make a film that deals with the subject of homosexuality, and I didn’t want to handle in the way that the protagonists are pained or troubled over their sexual identity and they are grappling with society’s perspective on them, that they’re discriminated against, that they have to fight for their sexual identity. I just wanted to tell a love story about the characters’ emotions and how natural and organic it is. And to not really be conscious of any observation of their love as anything other than two lovers coming to find love in a very organic and natural way. I was trying to find a story where I could do this, and there it was in the novel. It felt like a perfect match.
When I say this, I don’t mean that films that deal with discrimination, that deal with fight for rights of homosexual individuals, I’m not saying that’s not interesting or there’s no point. Of course, daring filmmakers have made brave films about that subject matter and I admire them for it. But exactly because there were great films that have been made on the subject, I felt this different approach could also exist.
Why was the subject of homosexuality interesting to you in the first place?
It just made me really curious. Here are people who say they love each other. They’re not causing any harm by doing that, and yet looking at this love between these people, there are other people who would point fingers at them and treat these people as very strange. I just could not understand how these people’s minds work. Why do they hate these people?
I haven’t seen any statistics where this film achieved this sort of effect, but people have come up to me and said, “I took my mother by the hand and went to see the film.” It was an experience where middle-aged women saw the film and they might have been tricked into seeing this film by their children, but they were able to liberate themselves from their hatred and bias and just see this as a beautiful love story.
What inspiration as a man do you draw upon to depict sex between two women?
More than anything, there is the source material: The novel has two women falling in love with each other. I thought if I follow the guideline that Sarah Waters had set in place, I could not go wrong.
The co-writer I worked with [Seo-Kyung Chung] is female and she’s always been quite interested in the matter of homosexuality. She has many lesbian friends. She has studied up quite a lot on the matter, and not just part of the research for this film, but it is something that she has usual interest in.
Fundamentally, it’s not as if I’m trying to get into the mind of an alien. It is not something unimaginable. I can use my powers of imagination and place myself in the shoes of the two characters. These characters aren’t being presented as the representative of all the lesbian women in the world. All I’m doing is getting into the mindset of these two individuals, Sook-Hee and Hideko.
Because the book is about the interior experience of this affair, I wonder if there was any concern or special care taken in translating that to reconcile with the male gaze: that of potential viewers and of your own, as a man directing two women.
This is not just any homosexual film, but a film that deals with the subject of male gaze. Those reading scenes [in which Hideko is forced by her uncle to read erotic passages to an audience of men], that’s just male gaze. It’s a film that says how violent this male gaze is, and as a victim of that, how much trauma it caused Hideko. And we’re sympathizing with her. Metaphorically speaking, these reading scenes are like scenes of gang rape. In a film which is dealing with that subject, a story about two women liberating themselves from male violence and finding love and forming solidarity, how careful do you think a filmmaker has to be to make sure that the film doesn’t come across as male gaze?
Extremely, I would hope.
And that’s what I was doing, being extremely careful. If as a male filmmaker, you present the female body in a beautiful way, and you present women as being able to have sexual desires and be frank about it, then does it automatically make it male gaze? So with these sex scenes, is it objectifying sex? Is it designed to give voyeuristic pleasure to the male audience? I tried to be as careful as I could for them not to.
As a gay man who’s never much been stimulated by depictions of lesbian sex, I found the sex scenes in this movie very hot.
Not as a mere release of sexual desire where you just go through the motions of panting and sweating through it, rather than that, I wanted to show the process and the pleasure that you have from the process of making love. Rather than the act of lovemaking itself, I tried to focus on the emotional intimacy of the two characters. And as a way of doing that, I tried to infuse the sex scenes with as much dialogue as I could, with almost the goal of making this the sex scene with the most of dialogue in the history of cinema. I tried to infuse it with as much humor as possible. In focusing on the characters’ emotion during lovemaking, I wanted to make it feel playful and feel more like a game. By the time we get to the end of the film, I wanted to also make it feel like a ritual, of these two women celebrating their newfound freedom. I wanted to convey the sense that they’ve finally broken the bonds of their class difference, nationalities, and their age gap to find true equality.
Why did you set this during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s?
What that allows me to do is to place between the two women yet another obstacle that they have to overcome to find their love. In the original novel, you see the difference in class and the idea that they both are scheming to put the other person in ruin and benefit from it. Finding love by overcoming these obstacles is what’s exquisite about the original novel to begin with. What I’m allowed to do by setting it in that period is place another obstacle for them to overcome—that they are from two different nations who are enemies of each other. As always with stories, the higher the barrier you have to jump over and the wider the river you have to cross to get to love, the more moving it is.
The second thing was, through the setting, I wanted to show the process of how modernism found its way into Korea, and that was done through the character of Uncle Kozuki. This is shown through the weird mix of the Western wing and the Japanese wing, in terms of how he builds his house, and the way he dresses in tuxedo and turns up in kimono in another moment, and yet having all all these maids dressed in Korean costume. In the mix of all this, I wanted to show this confusing mix of different styles, which is saying how modernism was forced into Korea in a very unnatural way. These foreign ideas and modernism were plopped onto what existed before rather than finding its way into Korea in a harmonious manner.
The Count’s fatal flaw is thinking he understands women, but he doesn’t. He never accounts for the potential that these women might fall in love. To what degree do you relate to him?
The Count considers himself so mesmerizing that he cannot think of any possibility other than a woman falling in love with him. Having two women fall in love with each other when he’s around is not in his vocabulary. There’s a sense that among the boys in the streets, they exchange all this knowledge about sex, which is completely wrong and ill-founded. When the Count cites that the women are supposed to experience the ultimate pleasure from forced sex and he tries to rape Hideko, it’s an illustration of that kind of process of misinformation about sex.
But as a man, do you relate to that fundamental misunderstanding, or is this a commentary on another type of man?
The latter, really. It’s a way to say that there are these foolish people living in this world. It’s a mockery and scorn at those people. At the same time, it’s a sympathetic eye turned to these pathetic men who don’t know any better. This is really simplifying the male and female perspective, but I thought it was necessary to approach with this kind of extreme exaggeration.
The Handmaiden is now in theaters.