Extreme Job (극한직업, Lee Byeong-heon, 2019)

Extreme Job poster 2Another in the increasingly popular trend of multi-territory simultaneous productions, Twenty director Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job (극한직업, Geukan Jigeop) shares its premise with recent Chinese hit Lobster Cop but swaps low budget zaniness for the kind of high concept comedy that dominated Korean cinema in the 2000s. Where the Chinese version was perhaps bold in making its law enforcers look like idiots, the Korean version is very much in the long tradition of idiotic but sincere policemen eventually making good, if perhaps more by accident than design.

The film opens with Chief Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) dangling on a window washing wire and making small talk with his quarry who then manages to get away leaving Go quite literally spinning in the wind. The rest of the team give chase, but the guy eventually ends up in a bad way with the gang’s exploits causing a multi-car pileup and a significant amount of public damage for which Go and his team are now responsible. Facing the threat of disbandment, the team senses opportunity when they get a lead on the Korean HQ of a notorious international drug gang and vow to break the case before a rival squad to prove their worth as police officers.

Bedding in for a 24-hr stakeout, Go & co hole up in a small fried chicken restaurant which happens to be right next to the bad guys’ hide-out only to discover the moribund eatery will soon be closing. The good news is the property is up for sale and Chief Go, borrowing the life savings of rookie Jae-hoon (Gong Myung), decides it’s worth the investment to crack the case. The only problem is, despite having been the only visitors for days, the guys keep getting interrupted by potential customers and are forced to open the chicken shop for real as a cover with the secretly excited officer Ma (Jin Seon-kyu) as chief fryer. Ma’s family recipe rib sauce proves an unexpected hit with chicken lovers and so a new food sensation is born, which is an inconvenience when you’re trying to balance running a restaurant with taking down a drug den.

Like Lobster Cop, Extreme Job satirises modish internet success as something as down to earth and ordinary as fried chicken becomes the latest foodie sensation. So taken with their success are they, that the guys begin to forget about the drug dealers in order to facilitate their chicken business all the while conveniently forgetting that they’re technically moonlighting even if it’s in service of an active investigation (albeit one they weren’t actually assigned to). Deciding that they’ve gone too far the guys raise the price to extreme levels, but that only makes the problem worse as does an attempt to rebuff the attentions of a foodie TV programme who then take against them and attempt to ruin their reputation at the worst possible moment.

Meanwhile, Go’s loyal wife is pleased with the extra money coming in but also suspicious. She doesn’t really like him being a policeman – mostly because his nickname is “zombie” on account of all the times he’s nearly died, but she probably wouldn’t want to be married to a chicken shop manager either. For some reason, owning a chicken shop seems to be a shameful occupation that everyone is embarrassed about, though through his unexpected business success Go eventually learns to embrace his inner chicken man and become a better police officer because of it.

The one officer intent on watching the bad guys finds himself excluded from the group as the others regard him as a shirker for not helping out with the chicken business. Nevertheless, in true cop comedy fashion, it’s team work that counts as the guys come to understand their complimentary strengths and start working together as a unit so they can take down the drug dealers if in bumblingly idiosyncratic fashion. As if to ram the point home, Lee closes with Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme from A Better Tomorrow running in the background to remind us that this has all been about brotherhood, togetherness, and holding the line as much as it’s been about fried chicken success. Slapstick laughs collide with ironic familial comedy and a dose of mild social commentary as the bumbling cops eventually make good by embracing their inner chicken men and reclaiming their dignity in the process.


Extreme Job was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Bros (부라더, Chang You-jeong, 2017)

The Bros posterTime passes differently in the country. Two brothers from rural Andong thought they’d escaped the relative restrictions of an oddly feudal upbringing, but something keeps pulling them back. Ghosts literal and figural force them to return home, confront each other and their remaining family, and then attempt to come to some kind of acceptance of their places in the grand scheme of things in light of their newly acquired knowledge. The Bros (부라더, Buladeo) stars unlikely siblings Ma Dong-seok and Lee Dong-hwi and is adapted from the stage musical “The Brothers Were Brave” which was also directed by Chang You-jeong. Set in rural Andong, the film is an affectionate, if not entirely sympathetic, portrayal of the fiercely traditional way of life in tiny country towns in which it really still matters who accedes to be the head of a family and women are expected to know their place.

“Estranged” brothers Seok-bong (Ma Dong-seok) and Joo-bong (Lee Dong-hwi) have each skipped out on their familial responsibilities for lives of modern “freedom” in Seoul. Seok-bong is a “treasure hunter” who gives eccentric lessons on archeological ethics to bored students while overspending on the latest tools to aid him in his (permanently unsuccessful) quests, while Joo-bong is an ambitious salaryman whose career runs into a problem after he is accused of “embezzlement” for ruling out the cheapest route for a new road because (unbeknownst to his bosses) it would cut right past his childhood home. Just as Seok-bong realises he’ll have to pay back the outrageous sum of money he “speculated” on new equipment when a civil war breaks out in his prospective dig site, and Jong-boo frets over his workplace blunder, both sons get an unexpected text informing them that their “estranged” father has died and they’re “welcome” to attend the funeral, if they should wish. As both brothers are in need of a getaway plan (and also an opportunity to ask for some financial assistance), they find themselves finally going “home” only to unexpectedly find each other on the road, start bickering in the car, and then accidentally run over a random young woman (Lee Honey) apparently out walking in this otherwise barren and deserted stretch of land.

On their arrival, the brothers are not exactly embraced by their loving family. Nobody really expected to see them and, as it turns out, their grandfather didn’t even realise they’d been invited. The boys’ rural country home is one of fierce traditionality, seemingly cut out of time and existing in the feudal past where people refer to each other via archaic titles and it really seems to matter who is declared “first son” of the family. Both Seok-bong and Joo-bong left the village because they had no interest in all this feudal nonsense and resented the old fashioned authoritarianism which defined their relationships with the apparently tyrannical patriarch they have both come home to bury, if not perhaps to mourn. Seok-bong, in particular, remains extremely resentful towards his late father for the way he treated their mother who, he assumes, must have been very unhappy all her married life.

Rural Andong, it turns out is not a great place for women. The brothers do have a “friend” in the family complex in the form of Mi-bong (Jo Woo-jin) – a policeman recently married to a very nice but often frustrated young lady who has taken to smoking (still considered scandalous in these parts) in secret in order to relieve the stress of being a married woman suddenly expected to undertake all these arcane social responsibilities, which include being “nice” to her overbearing mother-in-law who seems to delight in scolding her for doing everything wrong. In fact Mi-bong’s wife wants to move to Vietnam to get as far away from the family as possible, but  finds it difficult to abandon the feudal way of thinking in wondering what it would be like to be the wife of a “first son”. Women here are supposed to know their place – stay silent, serve the men. When Joo-bong’s “lady friend” from the city shows up unexpectedly, everyone reacts to her as a “potential daughter-in-law” and sets about giving her the third degree which includes a pop quiz on the three duties of an Andong woman which include obeying a father, then a husband, and then presumably a son. In a running joke, no one can even remember the given name of the boys’ mother because she was always just referred to as “first daughter-in-law”.

All in all, it’s no surprise that Seok-bong and Joo-bong wanted to leave but then again, it turns out there was a lot more going on with the family than they were ever privy to know and they have perhaps judged their father unfairly without knowing all the facts. This being a comedy, the central point is the repair of a broken family – firstly in the brothers repairing their bond as they face the crumbling of their individual quests and are forced to work together, unwittingly uncovering the truth about their family history. Meanwhile, they also have to cope with the strange woman they apparently ran over who seems to have lost her memory but has valuable information to impart to each of them. Haunted by the ghosts of home, neither of the boys finds what they originally came for but gets something (arguably) better in rediscovering their roots and experiencing the upsides of familial connection.

Filled with the strangeness of the village tradition with its mourning suits, wandering monks, shamanic rituals, and uncles who speak only in incomprehensible four character idioms The Bros is an absurd affair but one with its heart in the right place. Chang enlivens the otherwise unremarkable comedic narrative with interesting visual compositions as the mysterious woman seems to drag the brothers away into a pretty fairytale land filled with oversaturated picture book images in which the moon is just a little bit bigger than you’d expect and oddly ‘70s fashions of purple and yellow lend a cheerful and nostalgic air. A comedic tale of family, brotherhood, and the unexpected endurance of feudal tradition, The Bros is a warm and fuzzy tribute to rediscovering one’s roots but also one with unexpected bite in its subtle undercutting of the pervasive misogyny which underpins it.


The Bros is currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly elsewhere) via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Kim Je-young, 2013)

Queen of the NightThere are only two things which spring to mind on hearing the words “Queen of the Night” – Mozart and…something else. Anyway, Kim Je-yeong’s Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Bamui Yeowang) is about neither of these. It’s about a dreadfully self-centred IT guy who finds out something he didn’t previously know about his wife and then decides to go all CIA about it. It’s also about her boss who turns out to have a connection to her hidden past and a taste for date rape. Queen of the Night is a comedy in which in which nothing seems very funny, at least if you don’t happen to be a nerdy IT guy whose dream it is to marry a kind and “frugal” woman who will have just emerged from a nunnery or spent her formative years at a conservatoire where all male contact was expressly prohibited.

Young-soo (Chun Jung-myung) is a lonely, middle-aged computer guy whose continual search for love is often undermined by his money-saving mania which extends to leaving his lunchtime blind date waiting while he runs back to the office to retrieve the discount coupon he’d intend to use to buy her a cheap meal. All he wants is a wife who is “frugal” and kind. One day he ventures into a Subway and lays eyes on the girl of his dreams, Hee-joo (Kim Min-jung), who doesn’t seem to notice him and also seems to be the reason this is store completely packed out with middle-aged salarymen. Finally she sees him, the pair start dating, and eventually get married.

Everything is amazing, Young-soo has never been happier. The pair have bought their own apartment in Seoul and are even about to get rid of Young-soo’s horrible old fridge. Young-soo’s life begins to derail when his good-looking but sleazy boss, Park Chang-joo (Kang Sung-ho), asks him to install a dodgy surveillance app across the office network but it’s a trip to a uni reunion which plants doubts in Young-soo’s mind as to how well he really knows his wife.

Without giving too much away, Queen of the Night’s big secret is not what you think it is. In fact it’s nothing at all. All it amounts to is that Hee-joo was once young and a bit mixed up. She spent some time abroad, didn’t feel like she fit in, came back to Korea and felt even more out-of-place. So she started going to clubs and hanging out with delinquents – how scandalous! Of course, Young-soo wanted a nice, level-headed girl who was careful with money so this information disturbs him. Hee-joo has definitely outgrown her wild years and is exactly the woman he wants her to be, but Young-soo just can’t let it go.

The ironic thing is, spineless Young-soo is conflicted about employing the spy program but does it anyway while planning to write a blocking program to stop it working. Meanwhile he’s basically stalking his wife, googling her on the internet and trying to track down her old friends to find out who she really was before he met her. Simply asking Hee-joo does not occur to him.

The world Hee-joo is forced to live in is extremely misogynistic. Young-soo’s suspicions are first aroused when he is talked into making a rare appearance at a uni reunion after being assured he can take his new wife with him. Young-soo only wants to do this to show off that’s netted himself such a lovely, pretty girl but the reunion itself takes a turn for the strange when the wives (there is only one female computer engineer in the group and she apparently owes her graduation to Young-soo who supposedly ghostwrote her thesis for her, because you know women and computers, right?) are expected to participate in a bizarre talent contest to win white goods by showing off their special skill. Hee-joo ends up winning a kimchi fridge her mother-in-law had been desperate for by showing off her smooth moves on the dance floor, much to Young-soo’s surprise and mild displeasure.

Aside from being thrust into combat with the other wives of engineers, Hee-joo is also forced to contend with the unwanted attentions of Young-soo’s boss, Park. As part of his attempts to defeat the spying app, Young-soo discovers surveillance footage of Park taking women back to his office and spiking their drinks after which he assaults them. Despite seeming outraged, Young-soo does nothing at all about this. When Hee-joo looks set to become his latest victim, Young-soo busts a gut to save her but later descends into a bout of victim blaming, preferring to bring up the small amount of info he’s discovered about Hee-joo’s past to imply this was all her fault. Matters are made worse by Young-soo’s geeky friend (Kim Ki-bang) who spends too much time on the internet and assures him that the reason he and Hee-joo haven’t conceived is because of the anti-sperm antibodies in her system generated by promiscuity. Absolute and total rubbish, but Young-soo falls for it without reservation, largely because he has such low self-worth that he assumes any woman who falls for him must in some way be damaged.

Hee-joo is allowed to get her own back, to a point, by reuniting with some of her delinquent friends to scare the living daylights out of Park before telling Young-soo to get lost. He, of course, tries to win her back but he’ll have to learn to love her past too if he’s to have any chance of regaining his bright and happy future. This is a positive step, in a sense, as Young-soo seems to have acknowledged Hee-joo is a person and not just a personification of his hopes and dreams, but it’s also painted as a kind of forgiveness rather an acknowledgement of his totally inappropriate behaviour. Nothing about this is funny to anyone born after 1780, it is rather profoundly depressing. Queen of the Night may shine a little light on male/female relations in modern-day Korea but the picture it paints is far from inspiring.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tazza: The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Kang Hyung-Chul, 2014)

tazza posterYou gotta know how to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Apparently these rules of the table are just as important in the cutthroat world of the Korean card game Hwatu as they are in the rootinest tootinest saloon bar. Like most card games, having the winning hand is less important than the ability to play your opponent and so it’s more a question of who can cheat the best (without actually breaking the rules, or at least being caught doing so) than it is of skill or luck. A second generation sequel to 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, The Hidden Card (타짜-신의 손, Tajja: Shinui Son) is a slick, if overlong, journey into the dark, underground world of gambling addicted card players which turns out to be much more shady than the shiny suits and cheesy grins would suggest.

Wisecracking kid Dae-gil (T.O.P) comes into contact with the first film’s fast talking hustler Go (Yu Hae-Jin) and realises he has a talent for trickery. As a young man he gets himself into trouble trying to save a family member from a gangster whom he winds up stabbing meaning he has to go on the run and leave the girl he’s fallen head over heels for, Mina (Shin Se-Kyung), far behind him with only the promise to come back for her when he’s made something of himself. With nothing to fall back on Dae-gil ends up working for cardsharping gangsters in what is really a series of high level con operations. His first problem occurs when he temporarily forsakes the memory of Mina for the attentions of the alluring Mrs. Woo (Lee Honey) who becomes both his secret girlfriend and the gang’s latest mark.

Things do not go to plan and Dae-gil is left carrying the can for the gang’s heavy losses. Getting into trouble with another mark who turns out to be a high level gangster himself, Dae-gil finds out Mina has been sold into prostitution as payment for a family debt but also winds up losing a kidney as recompense for his mounting gambling debts. Now Dae-gil is out for revenge against pretty much everyone, hoping to rescue Mina and win her heart in the process but his adversaries are old hands at this sort of thing and it’s going to take more than a rigged deck to beat them at their own game.

Taking over from the first film’s Choi Dong-hoon, Kang Hyung-chul opts for a slick and charming Oceans 11 inspired aesthetic full of quirky humour and tricky slight of hand photography. With retro musical choices from a smooth cover of Spooky to the ‘80s synth pop kicking in for an exciting car chase, Kang piles on the nostalgia as Dae-gil rides high as a wisecracking conflicted member of this underhanded outfit. Taking inspiration from its manwha roots, The Hidden Card maintains its breezy tone even whilst the atmosphere darkens as Dae-gil taps out with this gangster credit, beaten up, drugged and waking up in a filthy room with a bandaged hand and a crude scar across his abdomen where his kidney used to be. Apparently making a quick recovery from serious surgery, Dae-gil’s discovery of Mina’s fate is likewise another addition to his quest narrative rather than more evidence of the savagery of this trick or be tricked world.

The Hidden Card’s biggest problem is an unavoidable one given its genre – the sheer structural repetitiveness of moving from one card game to another. Lack of familiarity with Hwatu itself is not exactly a problem even if mildly frustrating, but the nature of the way the game is played means that a great deal of screen time is occupied with watching people watching each other, moodily, only to be left unsure of what’s going on or who’s won at the end of it. This is all the more true of the film’s final showdown which brings back a major player from the first instalment in which the stakes have been raised supposedly to “prevent” cheating, but only really aim to make it more “challenging”. Still, away from the gaming table there are enough high octane fist fights and a lengthy car chase to break up the more cerebral thrills.

Undeniably slick and filled with a host of likeable characters offering snappy dialogue and silly humour, Tazza: The Hidden Card is far too long at two and a half hours. Uneven pacing does not help the feeling of scale and a similarly unbalanced plot structure produces a misleading sense of progression. Still, keeping one step ahead of the card sharks is fun in itself and even if the action drags here and there, there is enough character driven drama and ironic comedy to keep things moving right up until the consciously cool finale.


International trailer (English subtitles)

New Trial (재심, Kim Tae-yun, 2017)

new trialIt’s a strange paradox that in a land defined by corruption of the legal system, your only hope my lie in a new trial. So it is for the hero of Kim Tae-yun’s latest film. Inspired by a real life miscarriage of justice (a case which was in fact still continuing at the time of filming), New Trial (재심, Jaesim) takes aim at everything from social inequality to unscrupulous lawyers and abuse of police power. A teenager pays dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not only losing 10 years of his life but the entire possibility of his future now that he’s forever branded a criminal. That’s aside from leaving his ageing (now blind mother) alone with no means of support and the additional burden of trying to clear her son’s name.

In the year 2000, reckless teen Hyeon-woo (Kang Ha-Neul) gets himself mixed up in the stabbing of a taxi driver. Despite sticking around to do his civic duty, he gets arrested, tried, talked into a false plea bargain confession and serves 10 years behind bars. Hyeon-woo might have been released after serving his time but he’s not the carefree kid he was before. Sullen, angry, and an ex-con without qualifications, he can’t find a job and has the additional burden of trying to care for his now blind mother. Even if he technically confessed to the crime because his conviction was inevitable and he wanted to get out faster so his mother wasn’t left alone, Hyeon-woo has his hopes permanently fixed on a retrial so he can clear his name once and for all.

Enter shady lawyer Park Jun-young (Jung Woo). Park is not your usual pick for a social justice case. He became a lawyer for the big bucks and macho posturing. After he loses a big case, incurs numerous debts, and is left by his wife and child, Park joins a big firm on a pro-bono basis, hoping to pick up a big client, impress them and get another permanent position. Thus he stumbles on Hyeon-woo’s case and, given the notoriety of the incident, thinks there may be some mileage in it.

Park may start off as the cynical, winner takes all school of legally savvy but morally bankrupt attorney but the more he looks into Hyeon-woo’s case the angrier he finds himself getting. Not only was Hyeon-woo betrayed by the police who knew the identity of the real killer but chose to scapegoat a poor boy instead, but he was also ordered to pay vast sums in compensation to the victim’s family. Saddled with an irreparable debt for a crime he did not commit, Hyeon-woo has reason for his passive aggressive defeatism and lack of faith in Park but gradually begins to come back to life when provided with real hope of achieving his goal of a new trial.

Yet much of the drama revolves around the two as they negotiate an uneasy trust. Hyeon-woo has been let down before by men in who said they could help only to make a speedy exit taking Hyeon-woo’s hard won money and faith in the future with them. Park starts off claiming Hyeon-woo’s guilt or innocence is an irrelevant detail, all that matters to him is winning the case and thereby getting his career back on track. Flitting through periods of winning and losing faith in each other the two are eventually able to come together in their common goal, each working for justice not just for Hyeon-woo but for all the other Hyeon-woos betrayed by political and judicial corruption.

The real life case which inspired New Trial is still not settled but the man who inspired the originally slippery Park has gone on to become Korea’s new trial king – coming to the rescue of those who find themselves at the mercy of shady forces and railroaded into paying for something they did not do. Park finds few allies in his new quest for social justice, and none among the ranks of the swanky lawyer elites he was so desperate to join, but every movement needs a leader and perhaps this one starts with a man called Park and a massive change of heart.


New Trial was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Confidential Assignment (공조, Kim Sung-hoon, 2017)

confidential assignmentSouth Korean cinema has a fairly ambivalent attitude to its policemen. Most often, detectives are a bumbling bunch who couldn’t find the killer even if he danced around in front of them shouting “it was me!” whereas street cops are incompetent, lazy, and cowardly. That’s aside from their tendency towards violence and corruption but rarely has there been a policeman who gets himself into trouble solely for being too nice and too focussed on his family. Confidential Assignment (공조, Gongjo), though very much a mainstream action/buddy cop movie, is somewhat unusual in this respect as it pairs a goofy if skilled and well-meaning South Korean police officer, with an outwardly impassive yet inwardly raging North Korean special forces operative.

In the South, Gang (Yu Hae-jin) is hot on the trail of a suspect he’s been chasing for quite some time but just as he’s finally about to catch him, his phone starts ringing. The cute ringtone featuring a little girl’s voice saying “daddy, pick up – don’t pretend to be working” is impossible to ignore and so Gang answers, chats to his daughter, and lets the suspect get away. In the dog house at work, Gang winds up with all the rubbish jobs before finally being saddled with a “special assignment” – babysitting a North Korean policeman as part of a collaborative detail chasing a possible defector/dangerous criminal the North are keen to drag back home for possibly inhumane treatment.

The Northerner, Lim (Hyun Bin), has his own reasons for chasing the criminal in that he is the only surviving member of a squad wiped out when a superior officer decided to go rogue and run off with a set of plates for printing counterfeit money. The North need the plates back, but Lim’s motives are personal more than merely patriotic and what he wants is vengeance for the death of someone close to him rather than protecting the embarrassing secret of North Korea’s counterfeit currency conspiracy.

For obvious reasons neither of the two men is able to trust the other but the confusion and suspicion is only increased by Gang’s total lack of knowledge about the case. All he knows is that they’re looking for a defector – no more, no less. Lim isn’t happy about having a South Korean cop getting in his way and quickly ditches him as soon as possible only for Gang to turn on his ace detective abilities and eventually end up at the same place through policeman’s instinct. Gradually a sort of grudging camaraderie builds up between the two as they’re forced to spend more time together and their odd couple buddy cop antics become the film’s main draw.

Lim, knowing nothing of life in the South yet suspicious of Gang, goes along with some of Gang’s goofier attempts to rein him in such as extended gag in which he gets him to put on an ankle bracelet by telling him that it’s a secret detective’s badge, reassuring him that his is in the cleaners, only for him to meet another suspicious type out on the road. So that he can keep track of him better, Gang’s superiors order him to take Lim home so he can watch him day and night much to the consternation of his wife but delight of his slightly younger sister-in-law who is instantly smitten by Lim’s chiseled features. Lim reacts to all of this with obvious vigilance but comes to like and respect Gang’s family who eventually welcome him into their home without reservation, even taking pains to try cooking North Korean food when he appears reluctant to join them at mealtimes.

Never quite engaging with the political subtext, Confidential Assignment is less about North/South co-operation than it is about complementary skills and the creation of an unexpectedly complete buddy cop unit. Gang is instantly impressed (and a little scared) by Lim’s obvious physical capabilities as he leaps from high balconies and fights off a whole room of bad guys armed only with soggy toilet roll, but Lim also comes to respect Gang’s bravery, kindness, and dedication to his family. Confidential Assignment might not be the most nuanced cinematic portrayal of North/South relations but its good-natured warmth, silly comedy, and impressively staged action scenes make it one of the most entertaining.


Confidential Assignment was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)