The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


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)