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The Handmaiden (Ag-as-ssi)

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    Ugetsu

    I managed to catch this film in the cinema last week – I was keen to see it for two reasons – one is that Chan Wook-Park is maybe my favourite film maker working right now, and the second is that the early reviews strongly suggested a Rashomon influence.

    To give a synopsis (minor spoilers alert). The film is a loose adaption of Sarah Waters book Fingersmith, which has already been adopted for TV by the BBC (I haven’t read the book or seen the TV version so I can’t compare). Park has set the story in 1930’s Korea, a country firmly under the thumb of Imperial Japan, where a small element of Korean society has overtly Japanized in order to gain the favour of their overlords.

    The story is a twisty thriller whereby under the guidance of a slick conman (Fujiwara) young Sook-Hee becomes a handmaiden to a lonely Japanese lady (Hideko) who is a virtual prisoner of her strange overbearing uncle (a Korean who has adopted Japanese manners), who is obsessed with his book collection. The plot is that Fujiwara will help the old man copy his precious books for sale while he seduces Hideko, with the help of Sook-Hee. He will then marry her, bring her to Japan, then declare her insane, while he and Sook-Hee help themselves to her fortune. Fujiwara is in fact a Korean who has learned to pose as a high-born Japanese. But things start to go awry when Sook-Hee and Hideko start to fall in love.

    As you’d expect from the director of Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy, its not a straightforward piece of film making. The sets, cinematography and editing are stunning – he really is a visual storyteller, with the blocking of each scene as important as the dialogue. It is, as many have noticed, very erotic, but also gripping and frequently very funny – as with all Parks previous films there is tremendous visual humour, often tucked in at the most dramatic moments. The main setting for the film is a giant mansion, built in both Japanese and English style (reflecting the Uncles ‘admiration for Japanese and English culture’). The manner in which the sets complement the story is brilliant, a masterclass in camera movement and editing. For me, the story isn’t quite as good as I found many of the twists and turns a little too obvious.

    Park has been described as a serious maker of pulp movies, which to an extent I would agree with. However, in this film he really does explore the complex and fraught relationship between Korea and Japan in a very interesting and hugely entertaining way.

    As for the Rashomon connection, the film makes very good use of subjectivity (including a very inventive and funny way of subverting the inevitable accusations of making a male gaze view of sapphic sex). The filmstarts with a narrative by Sook-Hee, our apparent heroine, but then twists about a third of the way through to present much of the same story from Hideko’s perspective. I don’t doubt that Park is aware of the Rashomon connection – I find his film style very reminiscent at times of Kurosawa’s (especially the way he integrates his camera movements with editing), although I’m not aware of whether he has acknowledged this). But apart from the change in subjectivity showing more or less the same events, I couldn’t detect any other obvious Rashomon influences. I think that in this case switching the subjective viewpoint was more in aid of subverting the audiences expectations. So while I think that the film definitely falls under the category of films with a Rashomon influence, it would certainly not count as a reinterpretation or remake.

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    Vili Maunula

    Very interesting, thanks Ugetsu! The title of the film made me think that this is a tennis biopic.

    As you write that Chan Wook-Park is possibly your favourite current filmmaker, and since the only film I have seen from him is Stoker, I feel that I now need to watch some of his films. Which ones would you recommend seeking out as introduction?

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, the easiest of his films to find and I think the most entertaining are all three of his Revenge trilogy. Oldboy is of course the most famous, its quite brilliant. The first one, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the most ‘conventional’, while he went entirely and gloriously over the top in Lady Vengeance the last one. With the latter he lost a bit of control of the film at the end, but the first half is brilliant film making. His first big hit Joint Security Area is a really good film, just hampered a little by some terrible acting by the European actors in it (I suspect he had no native English speakers on set so was unable to judge how bad they were). Thirst is a great film, although maybe a little over the top for some tastes.

    One thing I’ve grown to appreciate about his films is that almost all are very subtle commentaries on recent Korean history – The Handmaiden has a lot to say about the complexity of Korea’s relationship with Japan, especially in the way many of the quislings during the Japanese occupation became some of the most powerful people in South Korea after independence. Its only from reading more Korean history lately that I’ve realised just how much of his films are very allegorical in intent.

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    lawless

    I didn’t know about this film until well after it was no longer in theaters here. Netflix streaming supposedly added it, but I can’t find it on their site.

    Although I haven’t read any of her books, it’s the Sarah Waters connection that interests me. Based solely on Oldboy, I’m not a big fan of Park Chan-wook’s directorial style. (My reaction to Oldboy was “this is what all the fuss is about?”)

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless, I’d agree that Oldboy can be an acquired taste. His style is so unique and over the top at times that it doesn’t surprise me that many people never warmed to it. I think you have to watch a few of his films to really understand his style.

    I think he and Edgar Wright are two of the few directors today who can do what the old silent film makers used to do so well – use inventive blocking camera movement and editing to enhance the humour of every scene – but what Chan Wook-Park can do is use visual humour even when a scene is meant to be dramatic or tense or erotic (this seems to be something that many Korean directors excel at). For me, this adds a whole layer of visual complexity onto his films which makes them endlessly fascinating and entertaining for me.

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    lawless

    A semi-flippant response is that I get all of the benefit of Korean directorial know-how and cinematography through the many K-pop music videos I watch. Don’t believe me? Watch this ten-minute action short masquerading as a music video (content alert: Tarantino-style violence).

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless, thats great! You could spend hours disentangling all the mixed up film and music influences thrown into that one.

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    lawless

    One thing that music video (and many other K-pop videos) has in common with Oldboy is the twist ending. Much of my dissatisfaction with Oldboy stems from feeling played by a cheap twist ending.

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