The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Priests (검은 사제들, Jang Jae-Hyun, 2015)

The Priests PosterThe era of hero priests might be well and truly behind us but at least when it comes to the exorcism movie, the warrior monk resurfaces as the valiant men of God face off against pure evil itself risking both body and soul in an attempt to free the unfortunate victim of a possession from their torment. To many, the very idea sounds as if it belongs in the medieval era – what need have we for demons now that we posses such certain, scientific knowledge? There are, however, things far more ancient than man which are far more terrifying than our ordinary villainy.

The Priests (검은 사제들, geom-eun sa-je-deul) begins with two Italian clerics in the Vatican discussing the somewhat taboo subject of exorcism and demonic possession. They have been made aware of a serious case in Korea and, as they can’t get in touch with the Korean exorcism department, head out there themselves for a little pest control of their own. However, the enemy they were facing proves too strong for them as they become involved in a multi-car pileup allowing the demon they’ve trapped inside a small dog to escape and migrate to a better humanoid host.

Now we turn to the Korean church authorities who are also worried about a young girl who appears to be displaying the symptoms of demonic possession. Their leader repeatedly tells them he will not “officially” sanction any kind of action whilst making it clear he wants them to go ahead and deal with it. No one knows much about exorcism so they reluctantly turn to the maverick preacher Father Kim who, as it also turns out, is a friend of the girl, Young-sin. Matters have reached an impasse as the demon inside Young-sin tries to make her commit suicide by jumping from her hospital room window in order to migrate to a more robust host, leaving her in a comatose state.

Anyone with any basic knowledge of exorcism in the movies knows that you need a young priest and an old priest so Kim gets a sidekick in the form of the equally unusual Deacon, Choi, who is not exactly a model student at the seminary. Choi is initially quite excited to be assisting in such an arcane ritual even if his chief job title is “pig sitter” and his new “boss” is a gruff and world weary man who he has also been asked to spy on just in case this is all down to Kim acting “inappropriately” with an underage girl rather than a visitation from an even more ancient evil. Needlessly to say, Choi quickly discovers Father Kim has been speaking nothing but the truth and he is in way over his head.

Though this is a Catholic crisis bound up with Christian cosmology and centuries old rites, this is still Korea and so Eastern concerns seep into the Western religiosity. The night Kim has chosen for his final assault coincides with the Buddhist feast of the Hungry Ghost when the dead return to visit the living and one of the criteria that made Choi a prime choice for the role of the assistant is that he was born in the year of the Tiger and therefore supposedly more spiritually sensitive. In a quest to help the girl, all avenues are being explored so shamanistic rites are also performed (though with little success) and Kim seems to have a kind of professional respect for his shamanic counterpart even if the two obviously disagree on some quite fundamental things.

Thanks to its double layer of exoticised mysticism, The Priests quickly works up a supernaturally charged atmosphere though its eyes are strictly on entertainment rather than exposing any deep seated social concerns.The possessed girl calls forth animals, speaks in tongues offering bizarre and disturbing prophesies, and eventually projectile vomits blood and snakes all over a painting of the Virgin Mary yet the film never aims for the shock factor that defined Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Though tagged as horror, The Priests is not particularly frightening (jump scares aside) but does manage to evoke a kind of ever present dread in the face of this unfaceable threat.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, Jang is careful to allow the occasional comic episode providing a welcome break from the seriousness of the war against ancient evil. Impressive action sequences including the early serial car crash and later chase sequence add to the urgency of the situation whilst also alleviating some of the ever increasing tension. Though he visits some dark places, Jang’s world view is not as bleak as Friedkin’s as we’re left with a feeling of restitution, once the original threat removed, though we obviously know that other such threats remain. The heroic ending allows us to forget this for a moment as we enjoy the right and proper victory of good over evil, neglecting that this is but one of many battles in an eternal, celestial war.


Reviewed at a Teaser Screening for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival to take place in November 2016.

US trailer with English subs: