Episode 8: The Handmaiden and Colonial Korea
What does Victorian Britain and Colonial Korea have in common? South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden, set in Korea under Japanese rule (1910-1945), has a surprising inspiration: Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel The Fingersmith, a historical fiction novel set in 1800s Britain, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Park is best known in the United States for his 2003 film Oldboy, an action flick which is actually the second in a revenge trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and followed by Lady Vengeance (2005). Unflinchingly graphic “with an indelibly ‘cool’ impression of violence,” Park’s earlier revenge trilogy can be likened to the filmography of other directors with controversial portrayals of brutality and gore, such as American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Kim, 86).
The Handmaiden, while not comparable to Park’s other works in many ways, does include graphic scenes, including those of a violent and sexual nature. Like Waters’ original novel, the film follows two women — a mistress and her maid — as they fall in love, despite the fact that [SPOILERS!] the young maid (Sook-hee) is actually a pickpocket in cahoots with a con man attempting to swindle the mistress (Lady Hideko) of her fortune. As the film progresses, the plot thickens, and few characters are who they seem to be. The Handmaiden is full of surprises and unexpected turns, a beautiful attention to color, texture, and light, as well as a thoughtful reflection of complex colonial relations.
But what can we learn about historical colonial Korea through The Handmaiden, a fictional story which was inspired by a novel set in a world thousands of miles away? Park does a masterful job showing his characters navigating the colonial hierarchy through the use of color-coded subtitles (white for Korean language, yellow for Japanese), characters’ linguistic and sartorial choices, and the development of Sook-hee, Lady Hideko, and others. As part of a larger genre of Korean films set in the period of imperial Japanese rule, The Handmaiden also reflects the complicated relationship of South Korea to remembrances of its colonial past.
We are thrilled to be joined on this episode of East Asia for All by Dr. Kelly Jeong, a professor and scholar of Korean Studies and Comparative Literature at UC Riverside. if you like The Handmaiden, take a look below for Dr. Jeong’s pop culture recommendations, as well as our sources used for the research and production of this episode. You can find this podcast on the iTunes Store or listen to it below. We hope you enjoy and thanks for listening!
References and Further Reading
“In another time and place: The Handmaiden as an adaptation,” Chi-Yun Shin
Dr. Jeong’s Recommendations