Movie Poster of the Week: Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” and an Interview with Designer John Calvert

Behind the scenes of one of the best posters of 2016.
Adrian Curry

Back in December when I compiled my list of the best movie posters of 2016, I didn’t yet know the names of the designer or the illustrator of one of my absolute favorites: the exquisitely detailed, tapestry-like design for Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.

I’ve since been able to talk to London-based designer/art director John Calvert of Empire Design about the process that resulted in this unique poster. I’ve also been privy to a number of superb alternative designs that Empire came up with prior to this one.

Above: The South Korean and International posters for Cannes (Korean title design by Kkotsbom).

NOTEBOOK: How did Empire—a design agency based in London and New York—end up designing the poster for a major Korean film premiering at Cannes? Had you worked with Park Chan-wook before?

JOHN CALVERT: Empire had previously worked for Fox Searchlight on the Stoker campaign, including the illustrated poster which Park Chan-wook loved. Consequently, he came directly to us to work on international ideas that were a bit more adventurous than the Korean campaign which would have to feature the actors more, as they are all big stars in their home country. The brief was to do something really different to stand out at Cannes and to use as an international poster. 

Above: three of Empire’s initial designs (for larger versions see below).

NOTEBOOK: How long before Cannes did the process begin?

CALVERT: We worked on initial designs a couple of months before Cannes. The final design was drawn by me as a rough visual initially. I had it in mind that there could be a limited run of specially printed gold posters printed on fabric to look more like traditional Korean and Japanese paintings. In the end we didn’t have the time to do that, so my dodgy iPad daubings were redrawn by the very talented illustrator Rob Cheetham.

NOTEBOOK: Did you do a lot of research into Korean and Japanese art of a certain era to get the look you wanted?

CALVERT: I did research into traditional Korean Art to get inspiration and discovered that as well as being very beautiful, Korean paintings are often telling a story. The Handmaiden is actually in three parts, so I thought it would be a good way to show the separate sections of the story in one image by having them all in the same forest.

NOTEBOOK: Was there a specific traditional Korean painting that was the major inspiration for the design? 

CALVERT: It wasn’t based on any particular painting, I copied a tree but then changed it a lot initially and the figures are copied from unit shots from the film… but the general layout was original. Korean designs tend to have one tree with loads of space to one side…

Above: One of John Calvert’s early iPad sketches.

NOTEBOOK: Did you have Rob Cheetham in mind from the beginning to do the finished illustrations? His Behance page says that he is a “professional storyboard artist and illustrator,” but his work has a distinct comic book look to it. Knowing what you had in mind for The Handmaiden, Rob is not the first artist one would have thought of for this job. But he realized it perfectly. Had you seen some other work by him that led you to believe he was the right artist for this?

CALVERT: Rob works in the studio here a lot of the time doing sketched ideas/storyboards for photoshoots, he can work pretty much any style and he’s very quick and accurate. So I knew he would be able to achieve what we wanted.

Above: Calvert’s sketches for the hanging woman.

Above: details from the Korean poster (left) and the International poster (right).

NOTEBOOK: What is the story behind the variations between the Korean and the International versions? Why were the cherry blossoms dropped for the International version? And the hanging woman in pink changed into the hanged woman in white? And were the two naked women on the bottom left introduced in order to sex up the poster, so to speak (after all, it is a very sexy film), or were they in the original poster and deemed unsuitable for the Korean version?

CALVERT: All the variations were suggestions by Park Chan-Wook and his production company, the original visual had the naked women and no blossoms. The blossoms were his idea, and the other variations, not sure of the reasoning behind it. I think both versions of the poster were released around the same time.

NOTEBOOK: Looking through your portfolio on IMPAwards, it seems that Empire doesn’t regularly work with illustration (though I just discovered the illustrated Tale of Tales posters which I love—were you involved with those?), so was it quite a departure to make a purely illustrated poster?

CALVERT: We do illustrated posters occasionally and have presented a lot more that didn’t make the final cut. Yes, I did the blue Tale of Tales poster with the castle in the distance and Rob illustrated the turquoise one with the serpent. 

Above: alternative posters for Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 2015). Design by John Calvert (left) and Rob Cheetham (right).

Three of Empire’s initial designs for The Handmaiden are below. Though Calvert stresses that they “are all from the first round of visuals we presented, so not finished artwork, still at visual stage,” they are surprisingly polished, lovingly detailed and, apart from the dummy billing block on the first one, seem pretty near fully realized to me.

And one footnote: Without knowing it, it seems that I had written about one of Calvert’s designs in one of the earliest Movie Poster of the Week posts I ever wrote for the Notebook: his similarly detailed and imaginative poster for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Panassus.

Many thanks to John Calvert and Empire Design and to Park Chan-wook for permission to print the unpublished designs.

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