Art-house director's take on Little Drummer Girl

South Korean director Park Chan-wook (seen with British author John le Carre and British actress Florence Pugh) has been a fan of le Carre since he first read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as a teenager.
South Korean director Park Chan-wook (seen with British author John le Carre and British actress Florence Pugh) has been a fan of le Carre since he first read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as a teenager.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • A leather suitcase sits in a dark room. A woman hurries over cobblestones in high-heeled boots. A child bounces a ball against a wall.

The moments seem unconnected and mundane, but the relentlessly ticking clocks and repeated glimpses of the time on various watches and digital displays - 8.19, 8.20, 8.29 - make it clear: Something bad is coming.

In these tense opening moments of The Little Drummer Girl, a recent series on BBC and AMC, South Korean director Park Chan-wook sets a tone of crafted menace and paranoia, pitch-perfect period detail and vivid, visceral sensation that runs through the six parts of John le Carre's hall-of-mirrors narrative, centred around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of the 1970s.

It is the second recent foray into the world of le Carre, born David Cornwall, by his sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwall - a follow-up to their successful miniseries, The Night Manager, which ran on the BBC and AMC in 2016.

That series starred Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, then about to become a tabloid obsession thanks to his brief relationship with Taylor Swift.

The Cornwalls' coup this time was to secure Park, a celebrated art-house director known for films like the violent revenge fantasy Oldboy (2003) and the erotic thriller The Handmaiden (2016), who has never previously worked in television.

The cast includes Alexander Skarsgard (Big Little Lies), Michael Shannon (The Shape Of Water) and relatively unknown Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), in the central role as young British actress Charmian Ross, known as Charlie.

The Little Drummer Girl is the rare le Carre work built around a female protagonist: Charlie's talents (among them bravura lying), courage and idealism lead the Israelis to recruit her to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group planning attacks in Europe.

The pairing of a provocative South Korean auteur and a glossy throwback espionage miniseries might seem an odd one.

But Park has been a fan of le Carre since he first read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as a teenager.

"My film world is quite dark and I would say that le Carre has a big influence on that," he said, through an interpreter, in an interview at a postproduction facility here.

The Little Drummer Girl, published in 1983, was translated into Korean only around 2005, he said, and although the story is set in 1979, it resonated.

"Korea is... where the Cold War is still very much continuing in terms of what goes on behind the scenes between the north and south."

When Park approached the Cornwalls about directing a new film version of The Little Drummer Girl - made into a little-loved movie starring Diane Keaton in 1984 - they already decided it would be their next television project.

After a meeting, they sent a few scripts to the director, but without much hope, as he had not done television before, Stephen Cornwall said in a telephone interview.

To their surprise, Park agreed - with the proviso that he would not change his cinematic eye. He also said there was only one person who could play Charlie.

"We nearly burst out laughing when he said Florence because we were huge fans of Lady Macbeth and of her, and she was at the top of our list," Cornwall said.

Pugh was shocked to be approached for the role.

"The Night Manager had boomed and this was the next one; everyone was talking about it and I felt it wasn't really in my reach," she said in a telephone interview.

"But it gave me a lot of confidence," she said because Park "had faith in the Charlie I was going to bring to the table".

She added that it was "rare to find a character who was just normal. There is something raw and wonderful and believably unlikable about her in the book, and I wanted to show that".

When the series made its debut on the BBC in October, Pugh's not-always-likable Charlie won raves from British critics.

The character, who "feels like a 21st-century woman", Simon Cornwall said, was one reason the producers did not feel the need to update the setting of The Little Drummer Girl to the present, as they did with The Night Manager.

Park said that although he did not change his directorial approach for television, there was one important difference for him.

"The cliffhanger to bring the viewers back the next week is important, something to be enjoyed and very different to making a normal film," he said.

"In terms of following Charlie's journey, I wanted her to have a powerful encounter at the end of each episode."

More than the sex and violence Park is known for, The Little Drummer Girl shows the director's mastery of visual composition and order. From Charlie's block-colour dresses to sweeping views of the Acropolis by night, every detail tells a tale.

"I wanted to stay away from the dull, gloomy colours you would conjure up when thinking about the espionage genre," he said.

"This is a story about a civilian woman, an actress, and I wanted that vitality and life in the visual landscape."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2018, with the headline 'Art-house director's take on Little Drummer Girl'. Print Edition | Subscribe