As The Handmaiden prepares to hit cinemas, we celebrate the themes that make South Korean director Park Chan-wook one of film’s true visionaries
If revenge was taken as seriously as weddings, Park Chan-wook would be the richest man in the business. He’d plan you the fairytale affair you’ve been dreaming of your entire life. It wouldn’t be tidy or quick or cleanly resolved — that’s for amateurs. He is a virtuoso, someone who understands that revenge is a dish best served not hot, not cold, but deliciously. His plan would take years or even decades before consummation. It would likely involve medically unnecessary amputations, nonconsensual dentistry, and incest, or organ trafficking, electrocution, and botched kidnappings, depending on your situation. You should expect agony and ecstasy and some uncomfortable psychosexual realizations; by the end, everyone you know and love would probably be dead. And it’d be absolutely gorgeous.
Just see his Vengeance trilogy for testimonials. Internationally acclaimed, its second installment, his vicious, Shakespearean mindfuck of a masterpiece Oldboy, won the Grand Prix at the 2 Cannes Film Festival. He’s strayed from revenge as a genre since then — flirting with romantic comedy (a battery-licking anorexic who thinks she’s a cyborg falls in love at a mental hospital with a schizophrenic who believes he can steal souls), vampire horror (a Catholic priest and an emotionally abused housewife pull a Natural Born Killers but with more theological angst), and Hollywood coming-of-age (creepy schoolgirl and her creepy uncle get even creepier.)
But revenge lurks thematically in the background (“If you do that, everything in the world becomes a revenge story,” he complained to a journalist who interpreted the romantic comedy as revenge turned inward.) But his latest film, The Handmaiden, returns to the vengeance that made him a cult icon worldwide who can namedrop Quentin Tarantino among his legion of rabid fanboys. A loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Dickensian lesbian classic Fingersmith¸ it’s an erotic thriller told Rashomon-style about a conwoman who infiltrates the household of an heiress in Japanese-occupied Victorian-era Korea. It’s also possibly the Park Chan-wookiest of all Park Chan-wook films, containing hyperstylized ultraviolence, eviscerating twists, tar-black humor, illuminating sex scenes, and yes, even an octopus.
In honour of the Palme D’Or nominated The Handmaiden, which will be released in select cinemas on October 21, we celebrate the themes that make Park Chan-wook one of South Korea’s biggest filmmakers and film’s biggest visionaries.
VIOLENCE AND SEX
Filmmakers who tell stories about sex and brutality are often accused of making expensive pornography under pseudo-intellectual pretenses. Sometimes, the criticism is valid. But directors who fuck and bleed with a purpose are unfairly condemned: Park’s reputation for shock has been so mythologized it’s become a mass hallucination. “Lots of people think the violence in the films I make is overwhelming, but they think they're seeing something that they aren't seeing,” he said in 2009. “You never see the tongue being cut in Oldboy but that's what people think they see.”
His memetic tableaus of gore — the infamous tongue-pruning, Oldboy’s live octopus eating, Thirst’s fishhook-and-ear meet cute, Mr. Vengeance’s mid-day seppuku and Achilles-filleting — gut-punch us so hard not because of the viscera, but the significance of it. The violence itself may horrify momentarily, but it’s what the violence reveals about the characters that we remember and wish to forget. “Maybe that's why audiences feel like I'm a cruel filmmaker, despite the fact that very few people are killed in my films,” he mused in the same interview.
Like the best storytellers, Park understands that everything is about sex, whereas sex is about power. His steamiest sex scenes contains no sex at all — it’s the Mia Wasikowska/Matthew Goode piano duet in Stoker:
The sex involving power imbalances — like the dining table scene in Lady Vengeance and the shibari demonstration in The Handmaiden — play out an entire narrative of pain and humiliation in excruciating silence. He reserves the (often playful) dialogue for the loving, mutually pleasurable sex scenes: “The humour is the crux,” said Park in an interview about The Handmaiden. “These sex scenes aren’t all about the panting, the sweating, the going through the motions. They constantly talk to each other, and they look at each others’ face, and they make jokes.”
POTENT FEMALE CHARACTERS
Park’s nuanced, humanizing treatment of female characters makes not just The Handmaiden, but his entire oeuvre a refreshing alternative to most male auteurs, especially those who paint in sex and blood. Even otherwise distinguished filmmakers often mistake strong female characters for throaty sex ninjas afflicted with Jessica Rabbit proportions and Stage 4 resting bitch face. But these aren’t Luc Besson’s “manic divine dominatrixes” or David Lynch’s walking, talking Madonna-Whore complexes. Like actual, real-life women, Park’s female characters don’t have a “type”: They’re a radical anarchist terrorist whose pet peeve is pedantry, a wrongfully convicted single mother who creates an army through donating her organs and other niceties, a sarcastic ex-housewife turned on by playing God — the Old Testament version. They’re ugly and beautiful and loud and quiet and eloquent and awkward and selfish and selfless and ice-cold and passionate and privileged and street-smart and queer and straight and utterly flawed. Even the bit parts burst with multitudes.
The one thing Park’s women do have in common is rage. Rage against mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings, God, the 1 per cent, abusers, the economy, bullies, and yes, the patriarchy. I don’t think it would be too hubristic to declare Park’s women not just well-written, but feminist. His films are fundamentally narratives of oppression and insurgency. They’re feminist narratives in HBO drag. They’re stories about women who are willing to kill and be killed seeking vengeance against men whose biggest crime wasn’t abuse or imprisonment or betrayal, but underestimation.
Park’s sense of humor makes all this darkness so delectable; without it, his films would be self-serious, high gothic melodrama. His comedy is blacker-than-black, but not in the cheaply misanthropic way employed by Fight Club or Idiocracy or Tarantino at his hackiest. It’s that rarest form of dark humor that serves up, in all six flavors of irony, some cosmic revelation about the absurdity and poetic injustice of humanity.
In Oldboy’s bleak opening, the belligerent alcoholic Oh Dae-Su is locked up in the police station. When his friend comes to pick him up, the officer tells him never to come back. “That’s up to me, assholes,” he deadpans in response. The funniest scene in the very tongue-in-cheek Lady Vengeance comes via a group of first-time vengeance-seekers debating the logistics of torture. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, four roommates masturbate to what appear to be the ecstatic moans of a woman mid-coitus in the apartment next door, only for the camera to pan and show her deep in the throes of kidney failure. That movie is arguably the best showcase of his humor, a bloody tragicomedy of errors that cauterizes all loose ends in a savage display of karma.
But Park is playing the long-con; in the larger scheme of things, humour is merely one of many tactics he uses to manipulate our emotions. “Korean society is very dynamic and is always undergoing rapid transformations,” he once offered by way of explanation. “I think this is what makes Koreans so passionate and tense, and possess such intense emotions overall of rage, jealousy, etc. And so, emotions in works that Koreans produce run at an extremely high gauge, and, on top of that, are very complex.”
Yet Park’s mastery of emotion makes even other Korean revenge thrillers come off as by-the-numbers pulpfests by comparison. Like the old-school, Sturm-und-Drang, waves-breaking-onto-the-jagged-rocks Romantics with a capital R, he understands the beauty in cruelty and the aesthetic power of emotion—his breathtaking cinematography enhances, rather than, offsets, the brutality. You have to be a sadomasochist on some level to fully enjoy a Park Chan-Wook film--the ending of Thirst is so perfectly punishing, it gives Requiem for a Dream and Grave of the Fireflies a run for their fucked up money.
Like those traumatic masterpieces, Park’s effectiveness relies on two things that are simple but extremely difficult to achieve: the viewer’s empathy and a satisfying resolution. His lifetime study of humanity no doubt helps immensely — he majored in philosophy and cites Shakespeare, Sophocles, Zola, Balzac, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Vonnegut among his inspirations. It’s no wonder he doesn’t want to be stuck doing revenge forever — more genres mean more hearts to rip out, but more than that he’s always had a distaste for the one-dimensional and banal, telling reporters he didn’t want The Handmaiden to just be “a human rights film about overcoming discrimination” and declaring under mock duress "In knowing yourself, you can liberate yourself” the moral of his films.
In a recent interview, Park made a confession: “I would love for someone to step up and put this to the test. Prove that all of Park Chan-wook’s films are romantic films.”