Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, came out of Cannes with fantastic reviews. The film is about a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired to be the handmaiden of a rich heiress (Min-hee Kim) at the behest of a swindler posing as a count (Jung-woo Ha). The trailer, which can be watched here, is a visual feast. Conveying a lush tone with gorgeous shots that are always in some form of motion, The Handmaiden trailer is wonderfully edited and bodes well for the film itself. In their sixth collaboration Park Chan-wook works with Chung-hoon Chung to tell this story of sex and lies, but let’s look at them as individuals at first.
With an oeuvre that includes Old Boy, Stoker, and Lady Vengeance, writer/director Park Chan-wook knows what he’s looking for. His films focus on, not only violent acts, but the emotional responses surrounding them. Chan-wook tells stories of taboos and violence, having created some of the best revenge-based films of the past two decades. In 2013, he finally directed an English language film titled Stoker, taking American ideas of the old gothic horror stories and mixing them with perfectly articulated myths of the old vampire. He constantly strives to get reactions with his films, while abiding by his own code of conduct in regards to violence and audience implications.
Let’s look at a film from Park Chan-wook for which Chung-hoon Chung was not the cinematographer. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first in the Vengeance trilogy, is about the kidnapping and ransom of a young girl. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) and his girlfriend ransom the daughter of Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song), but due to circumstances beyond their control, they are unable to give the daughter back. Chaos ensues. In this clip (NSFW), Ryu confronts the black market organ sellers who ripped him off. Due to being a deaf-mute, Ryu uses other means to get his point across.
The violence in this scene, as with most of the scenes, takes Chan-wook’s eye for extreme detail into account. The insertion and removal of the screwdriver are done mostly in wide shots, with one grotesque extreme close-up of the tool, as it trembles in Chulseung’s neck. This makes the audience aware of, not only Chulseung, but his mother and Ryu, as well. After Chulseung falls to the floor, Ryu goes to work dragging his other victim down the stairs, with the camera positioned behind the staircase. This keeps the audience distinctly separate from the action, restricted from embracing the violence, but getting a cathartic release from it.
Cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, has done eighteen feature films in two decades, six of them with Park Chan-wook. Chung has a fondness for motion in camerawork and close-ups that connect the audience with a specific character. He chooses different methods of framing characters, with a specific eye as to who has the power in each scene. Usually drifting to a more steady camera, he prefers using pans to help convey surroundings and show where the attention should go next. You can watch highlights of his work here. Now let’s look at a film that isn’t punctuated with a lot of violent acts.
With Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Chung had to work with films-within-a-film, as well as convey a tone that stands in contrast to the typical young adult adaptation in the independent cinema market. Giving it a visually distinct flair, Chung helps breathe life into this particular YA adaptation. This clip from the film includes the pan technique that he prefers. As the action bounces from Earl (RJ Cyler) to Rachel (Olivia Cooke) to Greg (Thomas Mann), the camera follows the movement like watching a tennis match. Even as Earl talks off camera, he’s framed in the mirror with Greg. The action is nearly continuous, only cutting on moments where the conversation’s flow stops and even taking into consideration character power struggles. Greg doesn’t take up most of the frame until he begins his monologue about why they’re accidentally on drugs. It’s an unusual approach to this type of standard scene, but it works effectively.
So what does this mean for The Handmaiden? Well, it’ll be visually stunning, in addition to an extremely tight thriller. Every moment of violence will be punctuated with a methodical examination into the character’s perspective. The production design will be eloquently depicted and character status will be conveyed without dialogue. Most importantly, it will be an interesting examination into a side of South Korean history and culture to which American moviegoers aren’t usually exposed. Combining eroticism with a fantastic premise, The Handmaiden is definitely going to be a cinematic treat.