Category Archives: Korean Films

The Thief, the Liar, and the Lovers: Korea’s Complex Crime Film, The Handmaiden

#NoSpoilers

At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.

The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.

The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.

Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new  bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, and Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki, The Handmaiden ©

Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.

Kim Tae-ri as Handmaiden Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.

Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.

Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”

The Handmaiden is in Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Available for rent from Amazon ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD, free for Prime Members), YouTube ($4.99), and iTunes ($14.99 purchase).

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When Clothes Destroyed the World: The Royal Tailor, the Film

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We’ve been here before: the King is unhappy; the King is lonely; for some reason unknown to us, the King does not like being king. True, he was the younger son and never expected to rule, but the King also does not seem to even like, yet alone love, his beautiful, loyal wife, and no one at the court knows why. Are we talking about England’s Henry VIII, who longed to be remembered to history for his military prowess but, instead, is known for his six wives, some of whom he divorced and some of whom he actually had killed? No, we are in Korea during The Kingdom of Joseon, literally, the “Great Joseon State,” also known as Choson (and transliterated as such in the film’s subtitles), a Korean kingdom that lasted for approximately five centuries, from 1392 to 1897.

women’s and men’s clothes (hanbok) of Joseaon (Chosun) dynasty [portrait painted by Shin Yun-Bok 1758?]

Much of modern Korean culture, etiquette, norms, and societal attitudes as well as the the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon. Korea’s 2014 film, The Royal Tailor (Sang-eui-won) examines the personal, political, and cultural struggles of one period in the Chosun dynasty by exploring a rivalry between two members of the Sanguiwon, the tailors responsible for creating the royal attire, and, by extension, the attire for nobility. The Royal Tailor is a sumptuous and intense exploration of how clothes can make a man, yet destroy a world.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok, The Royal Tailor ©

Dol-Seok (Han Suk Kyu) is the royal tailor, and he has served three generations of kings producing the traditional Korean hanbok. Though his designs are conservative, they are stunning with their elaborate embroidery on high quality silks.

Yoo Yeon Seok as the new King, The Royal Tailor ©

When the new king (Yoo Yeon Seok) announces the end of the mourning period for the deceased king, his older brother, he orders the Royal Tailor to make garments for the entire court. Dol-Seok, with his huge, in-palace workshop, is happy to oblige, and looks forward to being ennobled by this latest assignment from the King.

Park Shin Hye as the Queen, The Royal Tailor ©

Unfortunately, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and despite his impending coronation, the King is still not happy. Not with his crown nor with his Queen (Park Shin Hye), the widow of his dead brother, now the wife of the new King. Though beautiful and young, the Queen is rumored to still be a virgin. Because she has not produced an heir to the throne, her position is precarious and in jeopardy. Further, there are many members in court who want to ensure their own advancement by finding the new king a brand new wife.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok, The Royal Tailor ©

When the Queen’s ladies accidentally damage the King’s coronation robe, she begs the Royal Tailor to restore it. Unfortunately, the restoration must be done overnight, and the Tailor protests that it simply cannot be done in such a short period. Terrified of the King’s wrath and even more fearful of losing her position, the Queen turns to an outsider.

Ko Soo as Kong-Jin, The Royal Tailor ©

Enter the radically daring designer Kong-Jin (Ko Soo), who has a tendency to lie about in brothels with gisaeng (courtesans), who proudly model his provocative designs, and who knows nothing about the court or about royal etiquette.

The Royal Tailor ©

After the King approves of the “new” coronation gown, which was dramatically altered by upstart tailor Kong-Jin to save its undamaged pieces after the accident, the Royal Tailor Dol-Seok must accept this novice into his palace workshop.

Kong-Jin knows absolutely nothing about using patterns to make clothing. Instead, he draws all his ideas for clothes. He also has the strangest ideas about clothing: that it should be comfortable, and that it should fit the person who wears it. To Dol-Seok’s horror, Kong-Jin also loves bright colors, sheer fabrics, tight sleeves, and shorter hems.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok (top) and Ko Soo as Kong-Jin (bottom), The Royal Tailor ©

The ensuing rivalry between the two tailors, one championed by the King, and the other by the Queen, mirrors the power struggle between the two royals themselves, as well as among the nobility who wish to control the King.

Lee Yoo-Bi as Soui, the King’s Concubine, The Royal Tailor ©

When power-hungry aristocrats introduce the Prime Minister’s lovely young daughter Soui (Lee Yoo-Bi) to the King, he takes her as his Royal Concubine, and the war between the factions intensifies. As if that situation weren’t dangerous enough, the young tailor Kong-Jin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the lovely but very lonely Queen.

Ko Soo as Kong-Jin and Park Shin Hye as the Queen, The Royal Tailor ©

Although the film has some light-hearted (and anachronistic) moments when Kong-Jin dresses some nobles in more comfortable hanbok styles and begins to undermine traditional court fashion, The Royal Tailor is not a comedy. Instead, it is an intense study of power politics on national and personal levels: between siblings, between royalty and nobility, aristocrats and lower classes, educated and self-taught, men and women, young and old, the traditional and the new.

In Korean with English subtitles, the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Royal Tailor is a luscious, beautifully filmed examination of power whose (mostly historically accurate) costumes, sets, and cinematography gloriously mirror the sublime beauty and the terrible ugliness of all its characters’ actions.

Available for rent from Amazon ($1.99 SD – $2.99 HD) or free for Prime members.

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