No Korean movie has ever won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that no Korean movie has ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In other words, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” — which won a little gold man for Best Art Direction in 2010 — has more Oscars to its name than the entire country of Korea or anyone from it.
That’s odd and rather damning given the self-evident strength of the country’s national cinema, which has been invaluable since long before Shin Sang-ok’s “My Mother and the Roomer” was chosen as their first Oscar submission in 1962. It’s become only more visible on the world stage thanks to the emotionally operatic, auteur-driven melodramas that have defined the Korean New Wave over the last 18 years.
And it’s not as if the Korean Film Council hasn’t been trying to play the game. They’ve submitted wrenching tragedies Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (an unassailable masterpiece), they’ve submitted accessible crowdpleasers like “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” and they’ve submitted eccentric delights like Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother.”
None of these picks has made the final five. They haven’t been shortsighted so much as they’ve been snakebitten.
But 2016 could’ve been different. 2016 could’ve been the year that Korea broke the curse, triumphed over the Academy’s broken system for recognizing foreign films, and brought an Oscar back to the streets of Seoul. 2016 could’ve been the year of “The Handmaiden.”
A fun, fiendish, and debatably feminist delight from one of the world’s most compulsively watchable directors, “The Handmaiden” transplants Sarah Water’s “Fingersmith” to the fringes of pre-war Korea and reimagines the 2002 Welsh novel set in Victorian England as the perviest fever dream that Alfred Hitchcock never had. Returning home after making “Stoker” during a brief stint in the U.S., Park Chan-wook fashions a 10-course feast out of stale genre ingredients, heating a deceptively straightforward story about a Japanese-born heiress (Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko) and the con woman sent to fleece her (Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee) into a twisted symphony of double-crosses and unknown pleasures.
Baked with sociopolitical intrigue and glazed with enough sapphic eros to make “Blue Is the Warmest Color” look like “I Am Curious (Yellow),” “The Handmaiden” combines the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal with the simple pleasures of fine dining. Indeed, the film has been defined by its ability to straddle the line between high art and low-brow, premiering in competition at Cannes before becoming a box office hit in its native Korea. And with the U.S. release being funded from the bottomless pockets of Amazon, Park’s wonderful new work would certainly have been able to afford a decent awards campaign.
But this isn’t one of those years when things make sense — this is 2016! And so, in retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t have been all that surprised when KOFIC decided to overlook “The Handmaiden” and submit Kim Jee-woon’s sporadically entertaining (but ultimately impenetrable) espionage thriller “The Age of Shadows” instead. Why not. Burn it all down.
But just because the Best Foreign Language Film prize makes about as much sense as the Electoral College doesn’t mean that “The Handmaiden” should be completely ignored come Oscar night. On the contrary, Park’s deviant yarn is still eligible for all of the other major categories, and deserves serious consideration in several. That list includes Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (Park shares writing credit with Chung Seo-kyung), and Best Actress twice over, but it goes without saying that the movie has a more realistic chance of earning some traction below the line on the strength of its wonderfully unsubtle technical merits.
An avowed maximalist, Park makes films that are easy to appreciate for their individual elements — each of his camera moves arrives with the intensity of an orchestra conductor waving his wand, each of his scores announce themselves anew with every note. Never has that been more true than it is in “The Handmaiden,” as longtime Park collaborator Jo Yeong-wook delivers an aggressive and immensely beautiful mess of music that drapes itself over almost every frame of the film, a heat storm of swirling violins and flirtatious piano melodies. Easily capable of standing on its own as a thrilling set of compositions, Jo’s ornate accompaniment is so heightened that it seeps into the story, permits the melodrama to go for broke, and challenges the performances to meet the occasion. Not only is this the best and most elaborate movie music of the year, it makes “The Handmaiden” what it is — watching “The Handmaiden” without the score would be like watching “The Jungle Book” without the CG.
Ryu Seong-hee’s production design is just as crucial, giving vivid and unique life to all three parts of the culturally fractured estate that Lady Hideko shares with her lascivious uncle. In such a knotted tale, it’s crucial that viewers are never lost as to where they are at a given moment, and Ryu’s relatively subtle work ensures that we can locate ourselves in the house at all times, that our minds are picking up on the fluid dynamic between Korean and Japanese-ness even as our eyes are preoccupied with more … intimate matters.
But while the estate is unmistakably one of the film’s main characters, Ryu’s masterstroke doesn’t come until the third act, when a small hotel becomes an evocative neon stand-in for all of ’30s-era Shanghai. And her work is complemented every step of the way by Jo Sang-gyeong’s costumes, which allow the cast to wear their preoccupations with class and fully convey the slipperiness with which they move from one stratum to another.
Of course, no one does more to help “The Handmaiden” fire on all cylinders than editors Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bum, who juggle intersecting timelines, settle a dizzying array of tones, and churn a potentially convoluted narrative into an elegant chatterbox of intrigue and desire. It’s a hell of a balancing act measuring each scene so that the film hovers between cheeky erotica and immaculate drama, but Kim and Kim never allow things to tip too far in either direction, and they have a real knack for delivering each new twist at the precise moment that viewers have fully made sense of the last one.
Best of all, the editing keeps the whole movie cohesive. The first act might be tame in comparison to what follows, but it never lets viewers settle into the rhythms of a stuffy period piece, and it’s full of little jolts that force us to lean forward and look at everything with just the right amount of suspicion — that early beat when a sliding gate snaps shut across the entrance to the Uncle’s forbidden library is an absolute masterstroke.
Finally, no celebration of “The Handmaiden” and all of its parts would be complete without highlighting the contributions of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (who has shot all of Park’s features since 2003’s “Oldboy”). His camera always moves with a divine sense of purpose — Park knows how to wring any space for every ounce of its potential drama — but Chung’s lighting has never been more measured or exact. The night scenes are coated in a luminous gray haze that haunts the estate with the ghosts of Lady Hideko’s discarded relatives and the sex scenes are touched with a supple warmth that actively resists the blankness of pornography, that feels honest, that lets Park shoot a 69 while still keeping it 100.
“The Handmaiden” showcases work from some of the best craftspeople in all of film, and while its home country may not have chosen it as their official submission to the Oscars this year, that’s no excuse for the Academy to overlook it. Best of all, rewarding Park’s masterpiece for its individual merits would call attention to the asinine rules that govern the Best Foreign Language Film category, and hopefully embarrass them enough to inspire some change.