Grading The Handmaiden - scene by scene
Inspired by Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel, Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is a poisonous and feminist tale from director Chan-Wook Park. Having been transposed to 1930s colonial Korea and Japan, Park presents a gripping and sensual tale of a young Japanese lady living on a secluded estate, and a Korean woman who is hired to serve as her new handmaiden, but who is secretly involved in a con-man's plot to defraud her of her large inheritance.
The film, which is the first Korean film ever to win a BAFTA award for best foreign language film, was graded by Park Jin-Ho, Senior Colourist at Cinemate in Korea.
The colour grade was completed in two weeks. One of the key challenges for Park was to express the wet and humid weather after the rain. “It was difficult to recreate the sense of a wet and muggy scene on the screen,” he explained. “I found it really useful to mix several grades in one stack. It meant I could catch a thought and grade immediately before the idea disappeared, then blend it into the overall grade.”
Park has worked on several movie projects with director Park Chan-wook since his time as a junior colourist and he also has plenty of experience working alongside Park Chan-wook’s partner, DOP Chung Chung-hoon. This close relationship meant that when The Handmaiden project started, he was able to join in discussions at the pre-production stage, which gave him time to test and adjust the camera and lens characteristics that had been chosen by the DOP in advance.
Chung Chung-hoon used the Alexa camera and vintage lenses to try to create the feeling of Joseon during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s.
In this descriptive ‘scene by scene’ analysis, Park takes us through some of his work on various scenes in the movie, accompanied by a selection of before and after visuals.
Scene by scene analysis
Park Jin-Ho, Senior Colourist at Cinemate
Scene: In front of the rain at BoYoungDang
The first scene is a very cloudy day. In CG, storm clouds were added in the sky. Then, in the DI, I removed the warm tone of the original footage to better express the cloudy day. To make the tone of the characters colder, I removed the yellow colour and added blue that is close to white.
View scene 1/shot 1
View scene 1/shot 2
Scene: Wide view of Kouzuki's countryside palace
At the start of Part One, we see a wide view of Kouzuki’s countryside palace. CG was used to add a little bit of cloud, and I added a little sunset mode to create the two different tones in the sky.
View scene 2
Scene: An annex road
The main lens used is the Hawk Vintage 74 Anamorphic. The combination of camera and lens clearly differentiated The Handmaiden from other movies in terms of texture. I thought it might be just one specific look, but it was a good combination and the best reflection of the texture of film in the digital age as I have ever seen.
It was also impressive to create images while zooming in and out deeply with the anamorphic camera showing the depth of field and image texture.
One disadvantage of this lens, however, is that in a wide zoom shot the focus is distorted on the edges and in the corners. In the mask area shown below, blurring is strongly applied everywhere except for the centre of the frame, and the focus is soft. I tried to give the images sharpness by using the fast tracking and keyframe together around eye of an actor. However in such a wide view shot, it just wasn’t possible to focus on the upper part of the heroine, even when raising the sharpness value of the whole image.
Despite these disadvantages though, the filmic texture is fascinating.
View scene 3
This scene was in an annex with a Kouzuki's library. The characteristic of this library is that it is located in the shade and rarely experiences sunlight. Therefore in this shot, I decreased saturation as well as the brightness of the light part of the scene.
View scene 4/shot 1
View scene 4/shot 2
Skin tone of leading actors
The skin tones of the actors were rather pale. Typically, I graded the face of Lady Hideko to be expressed in pure whiteness throughout the movie, because she was trapped in the palace. On the contrary, I raised the skin tone of the maid Sook-hee a little, because she lived more freely than Hideko. The Count’s skin tone was desaturated because the actor’s original skin tone is strong already.
View scene 5/shot 1
View scene 5/shot 2
View scene 5/shot 3
Scene: Weather change
In this scene, Hideko and Sook-hee are talking about their mothers. In the middle of their stories, the sun was covered by dark cloud. Before and after the dark clouds cover the sun, I showed the weather change on the two heroines through brightness and colour tone.
View scene 6/shot 1
Between sky and dark cloud
View scene 6/shot 2
View scene 6/shot 3
Scene: Palace’s back garden
This is where the Count is angry with Sook-hee. I reduced the brightness of the tree-lined garden to concentrate on the two characters.
View scene 7
Scene: Hideko and Sook-hee run away
Here Hideko and Sook-hee run away from the palace for freedom. These cuts, arranged in Part 1 and Part 2, have a temporal change from the moment they run away over the wall to the moment they run across a wide field. Hideko and Sook-hee keep running toward freedom from the dark night to the coming of the dawn. The grade involved adding the feeling of the sunshine by separating the key of the characters and the field.
View scene 8/shot 1
View scene 8/shot 2
Scene: Soul asylum (psychiatric hospital)
The soul asylum scene needed a lot of hard work from the CG team as the director wanted to change the red brick wall into an achromatic wall. When I graded it on the big screen, I worked with mattes from CG as it was difficult to make a key to separate the wall and the actors.
View scene 9/shot 1
View scene 9/shot 2
Scene: Library basement
My work on the scene of the library basement involved showing when the Count did and did not smoke while in conversation with Kouzuki. The CG team added the smoke source, and I then added the green colour to it and gradually revealed the cigarette-smoky basement.
View scene 10/shot 1
View scene 10/shot 2
View scene 10/shot 3
“The combination of camera and lens clearly differentiated The Handmaiden from other movies in terms of texture. I thought it might be just one specific look, but it was the best reflection of the texture of film in the digital age as I have ever seen.”