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.
This film reminded me of The Naked Island as it’s set on an isolated ‘backwater’ in East Asia. Whilst the Japanese film focuses on the battles against the inhospitable environment, Bedevilled (a pretty rubbish title – anyone know what the original title is in English?) focuses on the misogyny of the ‘throwback’ inhabitants. Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) returns to her birthplace having spent 15 years in Seoul; it’s evidently not made her a nice person as she abuses a co-worker and refuses a ‘nice old lady’ a loan. In addition, she refuses to testify against three violent men who she’d witnessed beating up a woman. Hoping the escape from her present in her past, with her girlhood friend Bok-nam, Hae-won finds…
I won’t spoil but as the image above attests we find ourself increasingly inhabiting a horror film. I find it’s often the case, in East Asian cinema (sorry wild generalisation ahead), that when the tone of a film changes it’s done ‘full throttle’. There’s no sense at all that ‘good taste’ has anything to do with the use of genre and that’s how it should be. As usual, the direction is immaculate with beautiful compositions the norm, rather than the exception, which is usually the case in Hollywood.
As the film gets, literally, more hysterical, as the abused woman unleashes her fury, the film offers a devastating critique of patriarchy; the older women on the island are all complicit. In one scene, a knife is fellated – see below.
If Tartan Video’s Asia Extreme label was still in operation, it would be marketed under the moniker. As one reviewer stated, the film is ‘Able to make a statement while providing plenty of sex and gore.‘ In other words, ‘titillation and visceral shock included’. It’s an inherently male way of categorising films, I think; the focus on transgressive, and exploitative, images. However, it is quite clear that the reviewer entirely appreciated the film’s condemnation of patriarchy: a case of having and eating cake?
Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality.
Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence.
The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body.
Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the West at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.
The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-duk, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.
In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.
Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a police officer who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car.
The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; no as not Asia extreme.
Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.
Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.
I seem to have embarked on a season of Kim Ki-duk films (see Bad Guy), whose ‘extreme cinema’ raises hackles as well as bile. Audiences are probably expecting the worst when the film opens with the message that no animals were harmed in the making this film and a short introductory shot shows a young girl being shot in the eye. However, although physical violence, as in Bad Guy, is a manifestation of the psychological pain inflicted upon the (subaltern) underclass, much of the violence in Address Unknown, mercifully, happens offscreen.
Set in 1971 in a US army base camp town, the narrative offers fairly loosely connected ‘slices of life’ from three main characters: a schoolgirl who, after being raped, is thrown out of the school and two young men, one with mixed raced (African-Amercan/Korean) parentage and the other the butt of bullying who fancies the girl. The ‘letter’ of the title is sent by the mother to the father, now returned to America, of Chang-guk; however, they are returned with the titular message. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, the focus is on the colonial nature of the American encampment, the girl – Eunok – walks to school beside the base’s fence. She is befriended by an American soldier and Kim is sympathetic to the psychological effect of the American’s displacement, but his presence is ultimately destructive.
There is humour, too, in the mire of the characters’ existence: all three are framed, in one scene, with injured eyes. Hardly funny in itself but it’s part of Kim’s project to unsettle the audience and this he does. Kim has directed 20 features in 18 years, a remarkable tally given his lack of box office success. Despite the speed at which he works he produces work of quality, both in terms of direction and script, that demands to be seen. He is also one of the few who give a voice to the underclass which makes him one of the most important political filmmakers of our time.