Before we get too far, I just want to point out that this post is about “The Handmaiden,” a Korean film from 2016, not “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is a more timely American show on Hulu. Maybe for maximum confusion I’ll write about the Hulu show next.
Anyway, there’s a lot to love about “The Handmaiden,” but as far as cinematography is concerned, Chung-hoon Chung followed two important steps to push this movie from good to great.
1) Take a risk
I saw a great interview with Dick Pope in which he talks about the concept of getting “coverage.” In general it refers to getting various shots of a scene to ensure that all parts of the action are captured on camera, or in other words “covered.” A lot of times you’ll do one or two shots on set then someone will say, “We’re moving on to ‘coverage.’” That’s when you start to get skeptical over whether any of the following shots is actually necessary. Pope’s argument is that approaching a scene with a mind to cover all the action strips the camerawork of any meaning. Rather than finding the one or two best shots for a scene or a moment, we often settle by getting standard setups to avoid making critical decisions about what is “best.” The fear is that we’ll wrap the shoot, show up to the editing suite to see the latest cut, and end up totally shocked. A unique angle we took a risk on doesn’t fully capture the performance, or it won’t cut well, or at absolute worst: it’s UGLY. But that’s the most valuable thing we have. The best thing for the cinematographer is an ugly shot, because that’s how you grow. If all you do is shot-reverse shot, you never really make any decisions, you never really have any failures, and you never really learn what makes a shot work for you. Of course the flip side is that you might get to the editing suite and realize the risk you took was brilliant and you’re a genius, which is probably what happened to Chung-hoon Chung.
“The Handmaiden” is unabashed in its use of the camera to defy conventional filmmaking. Perhaps that’s most clearly illustrated in how they use organic, imperfect zooms constantly. Not only are zooms mostly phased out in favor of camera movement, but also Chung’s zooms are jerky and out of control. For the unpredictable narrative ride that this film takes us on, nothing could be more fitting. Now couple that with how Chung frames his shots. He’s not afraid to get a low angle, or move the camera wildly in the middle of a dialogue scene. He’s doesn’t let convention dictate his shooting style and that’s what makes it stand out. Think of the difference between “The Handmaiden” and a David Fincher film. Fincher feels like you’re watching a textbook on how to get coverage, Chung’s work feels like it’s illuminating all new possibilities in how to conceal and reveal information to an audience. There’s a great scene that begins with a wide-angle close up of Count Fujiwara’s face exaggerating a stutter as he speaks. We don’t really know what’s going on until Sook-Hee steps out from behind him and we see that he’s actually demonstrating for her how she should talk to Lady Hideko. Imagine how much less interesting that moment could have been in a standard profile wide shot. Imagine what we would lose if style was lost in favor of a safe choice.
2) Befriend the Production Designer, take them out to dinner, and probably get married.
This film shows off the beautiful symbiosis between cinematography and production design when they’re working in sync. There’s a huge variety of shot sizes in the movie. While Chung does a phenomenal job of getting close ups and extreme close ups, he does an equally great job with wide shots. That simply wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the gorgeous sets and costumes in every scene. Chung has plenty of flexibility to move the camera wherever necessary and pull out as much as he needs to because the sets are so full and grandiose. A lot of times you’ll see DP’s using artificial light patterns on walls to bring some interest to bland backgrounds, but that’s pretty rare in this film. The patterns and designs already on the walls make that unnecessary. The sets are often deep and dynamic in their own right, so they need a lot less help from the lighting. Sometimes it works the other way around. With all the practical lamps built into the sets, the production design actually helps the lighting.
I’m sure there’s a lot more to take away from this masterfully executed film. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!