A look at South Korean cult classics by Park Chan-Wook


Two things I absolutely avoid in films are excessive sexual content and gore. I managed to control both my refluxes and reflexes for Park Chan-wook. Here is why: women protagonists, an A+ on the Bechdel test and a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The cost: a ton of explicit language, intricate sex scenes and an abundance of gore.

After a string of dark and morbid themed plots comes a refreshing turn in his career (given his history male centered films), ‘The Handmaiden’ that released October of this year. Adapted from Sarah Water’s novel, ‘Fingersmith’, Chan-wook’s recent film explores themes like revenge, forbidden love, eroticism and guilt. Set in South Korea under Japanese colonial rule, The Handmaiden is a story of two women and one man narrating a darker than Shakespeare’s comedy of errors. Count Fujiwara- a con man pretending to be a count to seduce Lady Hideko, Soo-khee- a pickpocket posing as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko, with whom she falls in love and Lady Hideko- herself a trapped heiress engaged to be wed to her perverse uncle. 

Immaculate planning and patience are a trait common to both Chan-wook’s characters and his screen writing. As a director he is no hurry to unfold the plot all at once. Using slick dialogues, bizarre moral dilemmas, stunning cinematography and abrupt plot twists he keeps you hooked.

In The Handmaiden, he uses this beautiful technique of filming in horizontal frames that always capture the setting in a frame. So when Lady Hideko, in The Handmaiden, is reading out sexual scenes to a group of men, a business strategy her uncle uses to sell his books, Chan-wook’s camera fits her kimono, her stylish up do, her bright red lipstick, the reading stand, her book and the stage decorated with Japanese artefacts upon which she is sitting to read aloud into the frame. So much setting that you almost miss the fact that a young girl has been dressed up to read erotica to a group of old men.

In Lady Vengeance, a film he directed eleven years ago, Chan-wook takes on guilt, sin and revenge, glamorously. Lady Vengeance is the story Ms Geum-ja Lee who has been released after thirteen years of imprisonment for kidnapping and murdering a six-year-old boy. After her release her meek and gentle personality undergoes an extreme makeover and the new Ms Geum-ja Lee is out to seek revenge on the school teacher who wronged her.

Influenced by surrealism, Alfred Hitchcock, and Shakespeare, Chan-wook frequently uses melting morals, crafty stills and tragic heroines to heighten the appeal of his films.

Using well-crafted frames in Lady Vengeance, he allows the audience to claim a place in the story. As a viewer you are privy to several narratives at once, you are in control of the story developments. Yet despite that control, you fall for his distractions- the color of her eyelids, the red candles that are always lit, the innocent eyes of a puppy held at gunpoint. ‘Bam!’ she shoots the puppy, ‘Chop!’ she cuts her finger as your attention suddenly jumps from her eyes to her hands and wisps of smoke fill the screen as the spirit of a dead child surfaces.

However, Chan-wook doesn’t rely on just these bread crumb trails to weave his story and keep you engaged. Gently he unwraps his masterplan of a plot with unreliable narrators- (in The Handmaiden) Soo-khee is a pickpocket and Count Fujiwara a con artists, making them trained liars; both telling you only half the real story. Meanwhile (in Lady Vengeance) Geum-ja Lee is so beautiful that it breaks your heart to think she would kill a six-year-old. Build on to that flashbacks of her offering to take care of an Alzheimer’s patient in prison, passionately talking about the power of devotion or even counseling a distressed inmate after a nightmare juxtaposed against violent scenes of destruction and murder.

So confused, the film summary and plot line is fueled by your bewilderment. On one hand you’re following this plot that is leading you in one direction while the characters are alluding to the promise of something deeper and darker; caught in the midst of this dilemma is a captivated viewer. Occasionally nicknamed the ‘Tarantino’ of Korean films, Chan-wook seduces you into watching films until the revenge has been served, leaving you cold.


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