Director Park Chan-wook on “The Handmaiden” and the “more romantic” extended version

AE: To your knowledge, how is this film being received in South Korea? I recently spoke with a South Korean documentarian who told me the political and social climate there right now is quite homophobic.

PC: Well yes, Korean society overall tends to have that aspect. It has a lot to do with a great number of very fundamentalist Protestant Christians in Korea, a great number of which you may not have ever been able to imagine before. That’s why I was rather concerned at the beginning.

I’m fine with being criticized by those people. But, as a responsible filmmaker and a producer, it would mean disaster in terms of box office. That’s why I was worried. And because this film required a lot of budget for a Korean film. It was a period film and a lot of budget was required to bring back the 1930s. I was worried and I was thinking and thinking and I would try and encourage myself. I went through all this process and stuck through it and finished the film. And when it came to the time of release of the film, it was a bit bland in terms of–I didn’t come up against any fiery reaction against it. There was no protest against the film. So I was worried about nothing.


AE: You would say the theatrical run was quite successful domestically?

PC: In terms of domestic R-rated box office records, in the history of R-rated films in Korea it comes within top 10.


AE: Now your film is already quite lengthy, but if you felt that you could get away with making it longer, would you include more scenes where we see Sookee and Hideko connecting more emotionally? Or perhaps make such scenes that touch on that emotional connection longer? Or is it just that the way you tell an adaptation of Fingersmith is that you can’t give away too much of that? I know that I would’ve liked to see more such scenes. Was it a matter of not having enough time?

PC: I can only say it was for both reasons. Both in terms of the story, there’s a limit to how much you can show the audience of both characters getting emotionally connected, and also it’s screen time. It’s limited by screen time. The success at the domestic box office meant that I was allowed to have an extended version where I put 23 minutes more of footage, and most of that running time is going towards the emotional connection between the two characters actually.


AE: Is that extended version the version we saw at TIFF?

PC: No, it’s not. It’s something you might be able to see on a Blu-ray. That’s why I have people come up to me and say, “Well compared to the release version director Park, the release version was more of a thriller. The extended version seems like a romance.” When I hear people who have seen the extended version say that, I feel it’s a bit of an exaggeration when you say that. But it is true that there is more romantic elements certainly in the extended version.

Having said that, I’m a firm believer that the characters of Sookee and Hideko, they fell in love at first sight. That’s the romantic notion that I have about the two characters’ relationship. So if people say having watched the release version that their fiery development of emotions seems too rushed, if people say that about the relationship, I can’t find myself readily agreeing with them. Especially because the real attraction about the story, about the source novel I was reading, what’s really great about it is that here we are dealing with characters who if they feel drawn towards each other more and more, the more they find themselves feeling love for the other person, the more sense of guilt they end up feeling because of the situations they are in. So the bigger their love, the bigger their sense of guilt. This kind of paradox is something that I found to be greatly interesting and something that had to begin as soon as possible in the story.


AE: Does it bother you that people like me, that our reviews would be based off not the extended version, but the original release? And if you don’t care about reviewers, which is totally fine, how about audiences in general? That those outside of South Korea aren’t seeing the extended version, aren’t seeing this other side of the love story, that would probably color their perception.

PC: You never know until you’ve seen the film how your perception may change. I don’t believe one’s perception would change so much after having seen the extended version. Please note that I’m not referring to my extended version as a director’s cut. Someone might see it and find it to be very lengthy and boring. Probably a lot of the audience may think that, in my mind. But what this extended version is all about is actually for those people who have seen the release version, for them to find even more details to enjoy. It’s not really for, I don’t think, an audience who’s never seen the film to find the film through the extended version. It might be a burdensome engagement. And certainly, a film at this length would never be released as its first version. To release the extended version because of this reason, I believe that it would be a sort of backwards way of doing it. That’s why at TIFF audiences are finding the film for the first time as the release version.