The Handmaiden, co-written and directed by the acclaimed Park Chan-wook, was recently released in UK cinemas. The film follows a young woman Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired to serve as a handmaiden to Japanese Heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while secretly scheming to trick her out of her fortune. The film received high praise from both the audience and the critics, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Here is a recommended list of 5 films for those who enjoyed The Handmaiden.
Number one on the list is the Vengeance Trilogy. This successful Japanese trilogy begins with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), followed by Oldboy (2003) and completed with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). All of these films were directed by Park Chan-wook, the same director of The Handmaiden. Park’s most famous film is Oldboy, which is has become a modern classic in so many genres; mystery, thriller and neo-noir. The film served as an inspiration for many filmmakers, with even Spike Lee making an unsuccessful and unnecessary American version of it. Chan-wook’s vision and style remains unmatched, successfully carrying this from film to film, while keeping it fresh and original. His films are bloody and graphic for those who can bear to watch them, but the strangeness of the stories is what draws you in. He expertly displays the desperation of humankind in great detail. Each film deals with revenge to the extreme and is full of violence, which this director is never afraid of depicting in many different ways.
The second on the list is The Housemaid (2010) by director Im Sang-soo. It is a remake of the 1960 film with the same name and follows Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) who starts working as a handmaiden for a wealthy married couple pregnant with twins. Eun-yi’s job is to help Hae-ra (Seo Woo), the wife around the house and look after their young child but soon falls in love with Lee Jung-jae (Hoon) the husband and they soon start a dangerous love affair. The film’s genre is melodramatic thriller, emphasis on the ‘dramatic’. Cruelty and revenge is also a huge part of this film, though the blood and gore is left out. With a slow pace and an even slowly building the of the suspense to an unexpecting and bizarre ending. Sang-soo also depicts the harsh realities and the differences between the working and the upper class, especially women and their roles in these families.
Number three on the list is The Yellow Sea (2010) written and directed by Na Hong-jin. The film follows Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), a Korean who lives in the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji in Yanbian Prefecture, whose wife has left to work in South Korea 6 months ago. He soon loses his job as taxi driver and starts owing money to the wrong people due to his gambling habit. When the gangsters demand their money, Myun Jung-hak (Kim Yoon-seok) a local gangster makes him a job offer to go to South Korea and kill a businessman for $10,000. With no choice Gu-nam accepts but nothing goes as planned once he arrives at his destination. This is a gritty film with axe wielding gangsters killing each other ruthlessly. Director Hong-jin takes on touchy subjects like discrimination, loneliness, helplessness, paranoia, crime, violence and much more — making it a weighty film. It’s one of the bleakest films I’ve ever watched, yet it’s so hard to take your eyes off the screen. It’s no surprise that legendary actors, Kim Yoon-seok and Ha Jung-woo, took on such great roles, but this is definitely one of their best performances to date and their chemistry as rivals from afar is perfect. With a running time of nearly 2 and a half hours, The Yellow Sea can get a bit slow, but when the action kicks in it’s faultless.
Fourth on the list is Breathless (2008) an indie film written and directed by actor Yang Ik-Joon. The film was extremely popular among film festivals, winning several awards yet it remains a hidden gem in South Korean cinema. The film follows Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a low life criminal going around collecting debt money for his loan shark boss. He spends his days roaming the city aimlessly but when it comes to his job he is extremely relentless as he goes to great lengths to receive payments. One day he is challenged by Yeon-Hee (Kim Kkot-Bi) a high school student, when he spits on the sidewalk and she tells him to clean his mess. Unexpectedly he knocks her out with a punch and remains by her side until she’s conscious again. Once awake, Yeon-Hee doesn’t seem fazed out as she asks him to pay her medical expenses thus unintentionally starting an unusual relationship. Breathless was made with an extremely low budget, with director Yang revealing that he had to remortgage his house to fund the film. One of my favourite films of all time, this film is amazing. Unlike many South Korean gangster films, it doesn’t glorify or exaggerate the criminal world; in fact it does the opposite with showing the reality of it. We get to see the low level criminals who get paid to frighten and beat people, and the harsh realities of all the people involved in this world. The people who can’t pay back their loans are people with kids, living in houses with no heating and ironically the ‘gangsters’ aren’t much better than them. With both sides living in poverty it’s hard to tell which side is worse. The film also looks at violence in depth, especially focusing on accustomed violence, mainly on Sang-Hoon. It shows people who are brought up in a violent environment, people who commit needless violence, the effect it has on the surrounding people and, most importantly, the violent structure in society. There are many films that try and portray issues like crime and violence realistically, however many get lost in clichés. Breathless is one of the rare films that feels raw and authentic.
Last on the list is Memories of Murder (2003), one of the most iconic South Korean films. Co-written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, the film is based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders. It follows detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) and their attempt to solve a case of multiple young women being raped and murdered in a small town. Memories of Murder is truly one of the rare genuine crime films. It doesn’t glorify police work or exaggerate crime solving like many crime films. It is bleak and miserable, so be prepared for it. Violence is also an important part of the story as it focuses on police violence and violence against women. The desperation of the detectives trying to solve the crime grows bigger and bigger with each minute and director Bong does an amazing job bringing out the anguish in these characters. The ending is also one of the most memorable film endings I’ve watched. The actors each shine through, especially Song Kang-ho who gives his all to his role. Memories of Murder is one of the best crime films and is a perfect example of how a criminology in cinema should be depicted.
First published on NerdyPOC