This was a title in the Berlinale Classics programme. I was directed by Kwon-taek Im, a leading South Korean film-maker. He started in direction in 1962 and for two decades turned out genre films at a prolific rate. By 1979 he started to assert what we might call an ‘auteur’ vision and his later films have been successes on the International film circuit and have won prizes at major film festivals.
This film comes from the turning point in his career. From one side it could be seen as a genre film but it also bears the hallmarks of ‘art cinema’ in both the psychological portraits of two protagonists and in the way that contemporary social contradictions are played out in the narrative.
“Ill and indigent, ex-policeman Song is under lock and key in a rehab centre. There he meets another human wreck whom he recognises as his old adversary Jagko.” (Retrospective Brochure).
One can see genre influences in a drama constructed round a life-long rivalry and revenge drama. But the film makes this story complex. In the initial opening sequences the two protagonist are completely unsympathetic. But as the nature of their mutual antagonism only emerges slowly the film develops a question which the audience are likely to become interested in resolving.
Song is an ex-policeman, now ill and dying from his ailments; during the Korean war he was an officer in the South Korean [USA sponsored] army. Jagko has gone through a number of identities and employments since the war when he was the leader of a band of communist partisans. At one point Song was successful in capturing Jagko but when the latter escaped; Song paid a price in his loss of his position.
The film starts in the present and then combines episodes in the rehab centre with flashbacks, both to the war and the experiences of the two men in the succeeding years. The flashbacks to the war are especially generic and resemble battle scenes that I have seen in other Korean films. The sequences in the intervening years are often more complex. Song is continually catching glimpses of Jagko before he disappears again. In one quite long sequence Song spies on a couple in adjoining room, where paid sex is on offer, because he suspects that the man is Jagko. This is both voyeuristic and has a hint of exploitation; we see the women completely naked in a shot that stands out from the cutting of the film. The final resolution of the film maintains the perspective of both men as victims.
The film was shot in anamorphic colour and the widescreen cinema photography by Jung-ma Koo is extremely effective. The war scenes are colourfully dramatic and use fast editing. The scenes in the rehab centre are more intimate and have a darker quality. The musical score by Kim Young-dong runs a gamut of bravura sounds for the battles and strained melodies for the more intimate drama.
The film clearly delves into the contradictions in South Korea in the late 1970s. There was an introduction by a staff member of the Korean Film Archive who have produced the digital version. This presented the actual war in the 1950s from the point of view of the US-led alliance but was more interesting on the post-war period. Both the North and the South Korean states had authoritative regimes in the 1960s and the 1970s. Even in the supposedly liberal South Korea citizens with connections to the North, [say relatives] had to exercise extreme caution. The director himself, Kwon-taek Im, had family members who were involved on the communist side. So his personal background married with strong social contradictions at the time.
The digital version we saw was not a complete restoration but a digitized version produced for a Blu-ray issue. The colour varied at times and the soundtrack also varied. But it was reasonably good quality with English sub-titles added.
Burning is the first high-profile foreign language film release in the UK this year (it arrives with 27 international festival awards including the Critics Prize at Cannes). It opened on just 34 screens and so I had to make a 2 hour train trip to Sheffield to see it. Picturehouses in Bradford haven’t, as far as I’m aware, shown any foreign language films yet this year. Fortunately for me, not only was Burning a riveting watch but I could stay on and see one of the films touring under the Japan Foundation banner later in the day. Well done Showroom for putting these on.
I tried to avoid reading about Burning before the screening. All I knew was that it was loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami. I had noted and then forgotten that director Lee Chang-dong was responsible for the fabulous film Poetry that I greatly enjoyed in 2011. The new film focuses on three central characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man in his twenties doing casual work when he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) who claims she was at school with him ten years ago. She’s since had plastic surgery she tells him. “I’m pretty now. You once called me ugly.” The pair appear to bond immediately but Hae-mi is about to go on an adventure holiday in Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat and he complies diligently. But when Hae-mi returns she is accompanied by a wealthy man she met in Nairobi, ‘Ben’ (Steven Yuen), a few years older. The trio begin an uncomfortable relationship. I won’t detail any more plot spoilers because the narrative transforms slowly into a form of mystery thriller in its second half.
Jong-su is the central character and he is in every scene so he is effectively the narrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly we learn that at college he studied creative writing and that he wants to write a novel – but as yet he doesn’t know what the story will be. His family is ‘fragmented’. His mother left home many years ago and his father has ‘anger issues’ and is about to be convicted of assault. His sister has also gone so Jong-su is on his own in the farmhouse on the outskirts of Paju City some 90 minutes north of Seoul and close to the border with North Korea. Although I haven’t read the Murakami short story, I did recognise something of the tone of his writing and the sense of loneliness and alienation. Murakami is also well-known for his interest in Western literature and the relationship between Jong-su and Ben is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith with Ben as a ‘Tom Ripley’ character (though in Highsmith, Ripley tends to be the central character). When Ben asks Jong-su which writer he admires, he replies William Faulkner, which doesn’t augur well.
Jong-su also tells Hae-mi that Ben and his wealthy friends are ‘Gatsbys’. This comment points to an analytical subtext. We don’t know how Ben earns the money which pays for his swish apartment in Seoul and his Porsche. The actor Steven Yuen is Korean-American and seen to great effect in Sorry to Bother You (US 2018) and various US TV series. One reviewer suggests that Yuen speaks ‘perfect’ Korean and no doubt for local audiences there are minor details like this that make the characters much richer symbols. At one point Jong-su visits a large Catholic church. I couldn’t work out why but this is another example of a clue about a character’s background which might only be apparent to a Korean audience. Jong-su is no mug, but his demeanour suggests that he is seemingly not ‘with it’. With his mouth hanging open and a bemused/bewildered look at times, he openly states that the world is a mystery to him, but this masks his intelligence and determination. According to Wikipedia, Yoo Ah-in, the most experienced of the actors playing the leads, is something of a ‘youth icon’ in Korea. Jun Jong-seo gives an amazing performance as Hae-mi, especially since this is her first film role.
Burning is 148 minutes long. This is not unusual for South Korean films and I was fully engaged for the whole film – in fact, I was surprised when the film ended, I thought that there might be more. (Having said that, the ending is perfectly fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.) It does seem to be a problem for some American audiences as revealed in IMDb User comments. These call the film slow and boring. They couldn’t be more wrong. The narrative moves slowly but it does so with increasing mystery and tension. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is excellent, as you might expect from someone who has worked consistently with some of the best South Korean directors. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the door (of a truck or a container) with just a glimpse of a view down the street on the right-hand side of the screen from where Jong-su appears. Now I think about it, it is an ironic ‘pre-echo’ of the last sequence in the film. I enjoyed the film’s score as well and I noted in the credits that it includes something from Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, France 1958).
You might reasonably ask why the film is titled ‘Burning’. The Murakami story is titled ‘Barn Burning’ and at one point Ben tells Jong-su that he has a secret hobby that involves burning derelict greenhouses. Jong-su dreams about a burning greenhouse. The dream is not heavily signalled and other ‘events’ in the film may also be dreams. It’s one of those narratives in which the ‘reader’ can never be sure of the ‘truth’ of statements. That may irritate some readers and intrigue others. It all worked for me and if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the few cinemas showing the film, I’d strongly recommend making the trip. West Yorkshire fans – it’s coming to Square Chapel in Halifax on 16-19 February.
The Handmaiden had a very successful launch in the UK in April – more successful than I expected given the supposed difficulty of attracting audiences to East Asian films on cinema screens. There might be several reasons for the film’s success as a draw. First, it is clear that there is an audience for East Asian films in the UK that was developed via DVD labels such as Tartan and to some extent Film 4 – and that director Park Chan-wook is perhaps the best known name, especially for his so-called ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ which includes his most-discussed film Old Boy (2003). Second, it doesn’t do to forget the attraction of classy smut – a genre of cinema that almost seems to have disappeared in the UK, but which with this film has been given an imprimatur of respectability. Third, there is an audience/readership for the work of Sarah Waters, both in novels and TV adaptations, eager to see her work on a big screen. Fourth, Ms Waters herself and several other lesbian commentators have expressed satisfaction with the film and may well have helped convince doubting audiences worried by the controversies surrounding the previous high-profile art film featuring a lesbian relationship, Blue is the Warmest Colour (France 2013). At the end of April The Handmaiden passed £1 million at the UK box office, a major achievement for a stunning film.
I should declare that I’m a great admirer of Sarah Waters’ novels and South Korean cinema (but I’ve steered clear of some of Park’s titles, including Old Boy). I thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaiden which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen and one of the most deliciously erotic. It does have a couple of ‘shocking’ moments, but these are part of the narrative and you can always look away if they offend or make you queasy. It’s rare to find a film so long (143 mins) that whizzes by despite many slow-moving scenes. I was simply enthralled by the beauty and the artistry, including the terrific performances. A longer ‘Director’s Cut’ (167 mins) has also been available in some UK cinemas. I’m not sure what distributor Curzon/Artificial Eye’s intention was or what is in the other 20 minutes – which are not mentioned in Sight and Sound‘s review (May 2017).
Park and his writing partner Chung Seo-kyung moved the action in Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from mid-Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s. The new setting enabled Park to retain the maid-mistress relationship in a country house with a reclusive collector as the master of the house. The outline plot sees an attempt by a Korean confidence trickster masquerading as a Japanese count to work his way into the affections of an unhappy young Japanese woman who he aims to marry and then place in an asylum in order to steal her fortune. He is aided in this enterprise by a young woman from a den of trained crooks who will act as the lady’s maid and inveigle her into appropriate actions to help the con-man’s plans. The unforeseen element is that the lady and the maid will form a strong relationship that threatens to undermine those plans.
The initial setting is virtually a character itself – a magnificent house mixing English Gothic with classical Japanese. When in an early scene we see the car bringing the new maid to the house the road by the cliffs conjures up Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the house at Manderley. The house in Korea is similarly dark with secrets – especially what is in the basement – and is surrounded by exquisite Japanese gardens. As Francine Stock suggested on Radio 4’s The Film Programme, there is a sense of ‘garden porn’ to complement the erotica inside the house. There are certainly UK audiences who would love to see the gardens – but I’m not sure what they would make of the house itself. The owner of the house – and the uncle of Hideko, the ‘target’ for the Count – is a collector of ‘erotica’, the books and woodblock prints from Japan, the equivalent of French pornographic literature in the West. He invites ‘connoisseurs’ and potential buyers to his house to hear readings from these works by a young woman – now Hideko, previously her aunt.
The narrative structure of The Handmaiden is taken from the book, even if some aspects of the plot are changed. This means that ‘Part 1’ which offers Sookee’s arrival at the house and the elopement of Hideko and the count is followed by Part 2 in which the same events are seen from a different perspective and then in Part 3, a new set of events (i.e. different to those in the novel) derive from the twist in the narrative.
When I think back to what immediately struck me about the ‘new’ South Korean cinema that emerged in the late 1990s (which I now remember was introduced to me via Park Chan-wook’s JSA (Joint Security Area) from 2000), it was primarily the production design, cinematography and performances. I was impressed by the beauty and high technical standards of mainstream films which seemed elevated above those of other film-producing nations. The Handmaiden evokes the same response from me seventeen years later. I would happily sit through the film again just to revel in colour, costumes, decor, gardens etc. What I think pleases me most is the way Park seems to blend Japanese classical cinema with British gothic melodrama/horror. It’s as if a Japanese adaptation of a Tanizaki Junichiro novel had been melded with an adaptation of a Wilkie Collins sensation novel in a film co-directed by Ichikawa Kon and Terence Fisher, but still in a recognisably South Korean style. If you haven’t seen The Handmaiden yet, seek it out and enjoy!
It’s a moment to celebrate when a major South Korean film gets a UK release and from this weekend in the UK you have the opportunity to see it – as long as you live in one of a handful of major cities. When films from the revived South Korean film industry arrived in the UK from the late 1990s onwards it quickly became apparent that most of them were beautifully produced with a high level of technical skill and aesthetic understanding and that there are plenty of accomplished actors as well as skilled directors. It then quickly emerged that there were certain directors who were interested in marrying genre ideas from other cinemas with forms of Korean story-telling and aspects of Korean history and culture. Kim Jee-woon is one such director, first introduced to UK audiences with the immaculate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) and the slick gangster/crime film A Bittersweet Life (2005). Since then we’ve had releases for his ‘kimchi Western’, The Good the Bad and the Weird (2008), the hunt for a serial killer, I Saw the Devil (2011) and Kim’s American outing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (2013). There are other titles that I don’t think have made it to UK cinemas.
The Age of Shadows is at heart a ‘resistance movie’, although technically it isn’t set in wartime. Ignore all the taglines that say it is a ‘spy movie’. I watched the film on a plane, poorly screened and cut by several minutes I think (it is listed as a 140 minutes in cinemas) and I missed the credit that all the press reviewers picked up. Consequently, I struggled to place the time period. The story is based on real events – a plot by an underground resistance group to explode bombs inside a government building in Seoul during the 1920s. The Japanese had been in direct control of Korea since 1910 (and indirectly since 1876). Kim’s film goes beyond a tense thriller to embrace two major action sequences and the soul-searching drama of a central character torn between personal survival and complicated feelings of patriotism. This is Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean who has become a Captain in the Japanese Police – and who is played by the great Song Kang-ho. He must report to his Japanese commander and attempt to infiltrate the resistance group represented by two star actors, Kim Woo-jin (recently in Train to Busan (South Korea 2016) and Lee Byung-hun (seen briefly in The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)) with Han Ji-min as the female lead. Han is not really given enough to do and this, for me, seemed to be the weakest aspect of the film.
The action scenes are terrific with wonderful set design and well integrated CGI. The action ranges from Shanghai (where the resistance collect explosives) to Seoul with the excitement of the train confrontation in between. Song is very good and the narrative and his playing mean that we are never quite sure how he is going to act, torn between pragmatism and idealism. In his Sight and Sound (April 2017) review, Roger Clarke suggests that the film’s title is a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic World War Two resistance film Army of Shadows (1969). That certainly fits in the sense that Kim would surely know the film (and I’m sure he knows the Hitchcock films that might inform his train confrontation). It’s also an interesting reference to cultural exchanges after Melville’s adoption of East Asian film culture in Le samouraï (1967). It’s almost as if Kim is retrieving Melville’s borrowing. Melville is also borrowed by various Hong Kong filmmakers for gangster films (see Vengeance (HK-France 2009). But Kim may also be borrowing from Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (China/Taiwan/US 2007). I think the real force of the Melville allusion is in the torture scenes when the resistance members are captured by the Japanese. The film suddenly got serious for me at that point.
I’d love to watch the film again on a big screen where I’m sure it will look wonderful. Unfortunately the distributor Soda’s engagements seem to miss out Leeds/Bradford completely. Outside London the film is screening at the major independent arthouses such as Watershed, HOME and Showroom and various Cineworlds and Odeons. Bizarrely, however, if you live in Manchester or Sheffield, you can choose an arthouse or a multiplex but if you live in Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester or several other big cities, you are denied an opportunity. See the full list of screenings on the Soda website.