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Action Film Director Park Chan-Wook Transports Erotic 'Handmaiden' To 1930s Korea


And now a lesbian love story turned into a film by a South Korean director based on a best-selling novel set in Victorian London. It's called "The Handmaiden," and Neda Ulaby is going to tell us more about it.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This gothic drama brims with double crossings, a secret library, a sinister uncle and a woman wrongly stashed in an insane asylum.


SALLY HAWKINS: (As Sue Trinder) Let me go. Let me go.

ULABY: The book, "Fingersmith," is incredibly popular here in the U.S. and in Britain, where it's been adapted into a movie, a play and a BBC television series.


HAWKINS: (As Sue Trinder) I was a fingersmith, a thief.

ULABY: Ultimately, it's a romance between a female pickpocket and a wealthy young woman she was hired to dupe.


RUPERT EVANS: (As Richard Gentleman Rivers) You're going to become her friend, persuade her to trust me, to run away and marry me.

HAWKINS: (As Sue Trinder) Why me?

EVANS: (As Richard Gentleman Rivers) A fingersmith with a heart of gold.

ULABY: As he read the book, Director Park Chan-wook began to imagine it set during Japan's occupation of Korea.

PARK CHAN-WOOK: (Through interpreter) Not too far into the book, I came across this scene.


MIN-HEE KIM: (As Lady Hideko, speaking Korean).

ULABY: A tender moment between the pickpocket posing as a maid helping her mistress with a hurt tooth.

PARK: (Through interpreter) It felt very sensual. And this marks the moment when these two women, these two people, have started to fall in love.


ULABY: Park Chan-wook is not exactly known for romance. His most popular movie in the West is "Oldboy" from 2003 about a man held captive for years and his eventual bloody revenge. But the director sees parallels to "Fingersmith."

PARK: (Through interpreter) It is still a story about an individual who is fighting against what is handed by fate.

ULABY: Adapting a thriller by a British lesbian novelist, says Park, was actually a delightful change of pace.

PARK: (Through interpreter) Maybe it has to do with the fact that as I get older and spend more time with my wife and my daughter, I feel myself becoming more mature and more fascinated and drawn to feminine values.


KIM TAE-RI: (As Sook-Hee, speaking Korean).

ULABY: For her part, novelist Sarah Waters remembers how she felt when she learned that a leading South Korean director wanted to adapt her novel.

SARAH WATERS: Well, kind of surprised.

ULABY: But Waters felt the adaptation made sense. The violence in Park's earlier movies resonated with the Victorian novels of sensation that inspired her, like "The Woman In White" and some books by Charles Dickens.

WATERS: They're actually - they are very violent, those novels. There's a sort of a - there's often an actual physical violence in them, but there's often the violence of a society that's very divided on class terms, on the gulf between rich and poor, with some people living kind of desperate lives.

ULABY: And, Waters says, she's pleased that the movie "The Handmaiden" retains its feminism. Some male directors in recent years have gotten flak for their representations of lesbian stories, like "Blue Is The Warmest Color." But this director wrote the screenplay with a longtime female collaborator and says he screened it for feminist friends before releasing it into the world.

PARK: (Speaking Korean).

ULABY: Director Park Chan-wook says he really wanted to stay true to Sarah Waters' original vision.

PARK: (Through interpreter) If I follow the path that she has laid out for me, I could not go wrong.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.