Night Fishing (2011)

Night Fishing (파란만장, or Paranmanjang, which literally means: 'Ups and Downs’, or better interpreted as ’An Eventful Life’ in the context of the film) is a short film written, produced and directed by PARKing CHANce, a team of brothers, Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong. It won the Golden Bear for the Short Film at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and solidified Park Chan-wook’s critical standing as one of the most original directors of his generation. Whilst a certain technical aspect of the direction did much to distract from the creative feat achieved by this movie at the time of release (the entire film was shot by iPhone 4), we now have a sufficient distance from the hype originated from such a technical ‘novelty’ and thus are in a better position to assess their achievement with this film. Night Fishing shows that a short film should not be judged as a smaller and cheaper version of a feature film: in its best form, a short film can eliminate temptations to develop superfluous side plots or characters, and crystallise what it is that a director wants to express without being reductive. Since I have already reviewed exemplary films such as Freckles and The Dam Keeper, I shall digress from further elaborating on what a great short film can generally achieve. I might also add that an even shorter format, namely music videos, can achieve a great aesthetic and critical/philosophical sophistication (see my reviews of I’m Afraid of Americans and Love Is Lost). These instances show that, because of its restrictions, a shorter format could bring a greater focus and an opportunity to experiment in a way that is not usually possible for a feature-length movie: shorter running time can force a greater focus to the subject expressed; and the briefness can allow an aesthetic experiment to define the entire film, instead of inserting flashes of brilliant insights which could disrupt the aesthetic and conceptual integrity of a cinema. That being acknowledged, Night Fishing is truly one of a kind in regard to the subject and the way it is expressed.

Night Fishing begins with an ominous undertone. The shot of an abandoned winter farmland impresses the sense of inconsolable desolation. At a glance one could tell that something went seriously wrong and brought an untimely end to a life once flourished in this place. Admirably, the cinema is devoid of sentimentalism; it is dominated by a deep sense of loss, yet there is a strange sense of detachment to it, as if one is looking into the world through a magnifying glass, albeit an ancient one found at an abandoned house. Then, out of the blue, a traditional Korean ceremonial hat flies over the wasteland. A group of oddly dressed characters, a bearded quartet in black to be precise, appears against the wintry skyline: their presence reminds us of one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema, that is, the closing scene of The Seventh Seal wherein dance of the dead is seen against the empty heaven. Then, suddenly, a portrait of a Korean deity momentarily appears in the sky. The use of this image at this juncture is purposeful yet perplexing, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with religious practices in Korea. Yet, given the overall impression of the film so far, it is abundantly clear that this seeming strangeness is not for a superficial satire as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). In fact, the use of this image represents a rarely discussed aspect of Park’s work, the subject which must be examined later in this article. Following this startling moment, the black clad quartet reappears. They begin to perform a mournful song about a failed marriage: the narrator’s ex tells him that her husband is bankrupt, and she is divorcing him. Why she tells him this now over a drink is anyone’s guess, yet there is an unmistakable sexual tension, the mixture of allure and unresolved resentment, and an irresistible pull of desire and a sense of abjection felt in advance for its fulfilment. The performance is eerily comical yet strangely urgent; it is at once darkly intense and self-consciously unhinged.

Then, the film transposes to the main story; a man in a baseball cap (Oh Kee-seok) softly continues the song and approaches the river bank in the cold evening light. He comes to a spot and sets up several fishing rods to begin his nightly toil. The radio station blares out yet another song about an unrequited love. As the film follows the benign routine of a recreational fisherman, a sense of sorrowful disquiet progressively deepens. When the music switches to what sounds like a traditional song, the protagonist stops cutting a freshwater fish with a knife and appears to introspect for a moment: he vaguely senses that something is amiss. He appears to realise that he cannot remember something critically important. Yet the moment of reflection is all too brief; he goes back to his spot and waits for another catch. It is already dusk, and the sky is strangely tranquil. Then, suddenly, we are thrown into a ghostly monochrome landscape at the dead of night. As the man relieves himself in the bank, the icy sense of dread begins to take hold. With grainy monochrome frames popularised by The Blair Witch Project (1999), it certainly raises viewers’ anticipation. Still, what awaits the protagonist in the following sequence will take your breath away. Upon hearing the bells attached to a fishing rod ringing, the man rushes to retrieve his prey. It soon becomes clear that the catch is not an ordinary one. He heaves with its weight and struggles to keep his bearing on the muddy shore of the black river. He staggers and stumps over the rest of fishing rods, and, upon pulling his catch out of water, an ordinary little fish swings around his ankle and entangles his legs, causing the man to slip and fall onto the mud. Then, suddenly, he lets out a fearful scream. At the end of the hook lies a maiden in white with a porcelain face and long raven hair (Lee Jung-hyun) instead of a common freshwater fish. This metamorphosis signals a radical turn of the narrative: we suddenly find ourselves in a twilight zone between life and death.

Whilst the anticipation is steadily raised through these developments, what follows them from this point on is truly astounding. It turns out that the ‘dead woman’ is not dead at all. She is in fact a shaman who has come to contact the fisherman who met his demise by venturing a night fishing despite a heavy weather warning. She has come to guide his soul from this mortal coil. To this end, she reminds him of the fact that he is deceased. Once he realises it, the screen suddenly blasts with an incredible explosion of sound and vision; we are shocked to find ourselves in the midst of a traditional Korean ritual wherein a colourfully attired shaman performs a rite and readies the dead to open his chest to loved ones for one last time so that he may rest in peace. The shaman, by speaking for the dead, enables to create the last opportunity of reconciliation through a dramatic catharsis. Only by completing this process through a shaman, the dead could be prepared to state his final wish and leave this world for good. Lee Jung-hyun, an internationally renowned K-pop singer, brings an absorbing performance that haunts our days and nights. Lee’s ability to flawlessly embody several distinct characters as a shaman inspires an awe. She plays: a dead woman, a ghost, the dead man’s daughter, the spirit of the dead fisherman, and a shaman who performs a rite of departure. From a beautiful corpse to a strangely homely yet terrifying ghost woman, then to a crying child missing her dead father, Lee makes a series of seamless transitions which surely spooks the viewers. Yet, in her capacity as a shaman who facilitates a reconciliation between the dead and the living, Lee brings a forgotten dramaturgy in front of us; like in Ancient Greek dramas wherein the fate of mortals are determined by divine interventions, Night Fishing embraces a mythical territory without reservation. It is remarkable to witness the revival of ancient shamanistic tradition in modern Korea which is one of the most advanced industrial nations today. Whilst it is easy to brush this subject aside by rendering it a cultural curiosity, it is important to question Park’s intention in telling a story of life and death through this religious practice native to Korea, for religion is featured in a few high-profile films of Korean New Wave Cinema such as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009). To this end, I shall present the outline of religion in South Korea.

Although South Korea has developed into one of the most advanced industrial nations in the world and their products such as smartphones and automobiles have become household names, its population remains largely religious: according to a 2012 survey, atheists consist of only 15% of population. Given the persistent popularity of native shamanistic practice called Sindo, which is believed by the most of the ‘non-affiliated’ (about 56% of the population), it is safe to say that this ancient religion is still an integral part of South Korean Geist. Curiously, this vastly popular religion is categorised as religiously ‘non-affiliated’ group of population. It suggests that Sindo, despite its long history and popularity, is not officially recognised as a proper religion in South Korea. This lack of recognition is nothing new: despite its enduring support amongst the populace, Sindo has never enjoyed the official endorsement of the power-that-be. The first major religion that ruled over Sindo was Buddhism. Introduced by Chinese in 372 to the northern kingdom of Goguryeo, Buddhism became a political force before the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) suppressed it in favour of Neo-Confucianism. Under the Joseon reign, Buddhist temples were destroyed; monks and nuns were prohibited from entering towns and cities. As a result, Korean Buddhism lost much of its influence; currently about 15% of population is affiliated with it. Whilst Sindo also suffered marginalisation under the Joseon rule, its popularity has never waned: at the dawn of the 20th century, the vast majority of Koreans practiced it. Whilst there was a decline of its popularity in the early 20th century, it is still considered the most practiced religion in Korea. The aforementioned dip of Sindo's popularity in the early 20th century is due to the specific political circumstances of the time: Korea suffered 35 years of brutal Japanese rule (1910-1945) during which Japanese attempted to absorb Korean Sindo into their state religion, Shintō, in order to enforce the worship of Japanese emperor. During this national crisis, Koreans turned to Christianity, which established the stable base in the peninsula since the 18th century, as a means to resist the Japanese Anschluss of Korea. Whilst Christianity took an advantage of this trying period, its influence is waning since 2000, and Sindo still remains the most popular form of religion in Korea by a substantial margin: according to a 2015 survey, Christianity is practiced by about 27% of population; and 56% of population is non-affiliated. Given the number of atheists, this leaves just over 40% of Koreans practicing this ancient native religion today.

Then, we must ask at this point of our inquiry: Why Sindo, now? I think that there are two reasons why Park has given Sindo a prominent place in this cinema: firstly a reason which considers Korean cultural, not necessarily national, identity; and secondly a critical/philosophical reason which stems from the dissatisfaction in the modern Form of Life dictated by Industrial Materialism. Industrial Materialism is a term I use to define the Geist of Industrial Era which is present in all forms of industrially developed societies: whilst capitalism differs from socialism and communism regarding the means of regulating the distribution of power, these societies unanimously see the world as the aggregation of materials for the production of commodities in order to promote economic growth as a means to an end: domination. The most recent elaboration of this concept is quoted from my article on the Artificial Intelligence and the concept of humanity (Happy Birthday, David).

This kind of materialism must be traced back to the shift in metaphysics, namely, Descartes’ sharp distinction between Mind and Body. According to the French philosopher, Body denotes all material entities, not limited to the bodies of animated entities. Mind is a substance capable of mental activities such as thinking, and survives the destruction of individual bodies since they are separate entities. Mind is present only in God and humankind, hence, according to Descartes, animated entities other than humans must be considered ‘things’. Based on this understanding, the French philosopher famously declared: the cries of animals ‘in pain’ are in fact mere mechanical noises in reaction to certain stimuli. If Descartes is right, then, the shriek made by an animal who is about to be slaughtered is no different from the sound of a stone being ground, or the sound of a musical instrument played by a virtuoso. In this light, the world except humankind consists of mere materials which we are entitled to exploit in any way we can/want. Whilst Descartes’ instrumentalism is under certain restrictions, and by no means directly responsible for the brutality of Industrialism that followed, it came at a particular historical juncture wherein Europeans were about to move away from the restrictive measures imposed by ecclesiastical authorities and preparing themselves to embrace the crude reductionism represented by Industrial Revolution which rendered, yet again, humankind without capital as expendables. The eventual domination of Anglophone empiricism means that the crude materialism which has come to shape the Geist of Industrial Era destroyed the metaphysical ‘safety mechanism’ which, despite its destructiveness, unjustness and incorrectness, kept humankind’s ambitions in check. God was soon declared ‘dead’, and humans without capital became expendable entities ‘which’ fulfil given functions (in non-capitalist societies, states alone own capital; hence the officials of the states function as business owners in capitalist societies. The means of controlling the distribution of power may be the only difference between respective systems).

Whilst it appears moot to mention Park’s denouncement of Industrial Materialism, for anyone who takes the vocation such as artistic creation seriously must reject this Weltanschauung in the first place, it is how Park expresses his rejection of this most infectious Geist that demands our attention. Generally speaking, there are several ways to resist crude Materialism which reduces the world into an aggregation of inanimate objects. One might take a philosophical argument against it by advancing the notion of epistemological/linguistic limit inherent to a human agent, thereby denying the possibility of ‘knowing’ precisely the nature of the world in itself. This argument results in undermining the metaphysics which enabled the crude materialism: the mindless reduction of the world into inanimate objects cannot be justified on account of our constitutive inability to access immediate reality (If in doubt, read some credible writing on Bohr and Heisenberg such as: Heisenberg and the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics by Kristian Camilleri). One could also resist crude physical reductionism by stressing the critical importance of phenomenology as a necessary component of how we exist and operate in the world, and thus stressing the importance of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Finally one may condemn the instrumentalism on ethical ground by arguing that each agent must be treated as an end in itself, not a mere means. Whilst there have been countless attempts to reject this dominant Geist intellectually, such efforts have had little effect in persuading general public to withhold its support of this distinctly modern Geist. The reasons for the lack of success for these intellectual effort to resist this Form of Life are manifold and too complex to discuss here: I shall limit myself by mentioning in passing some of the contributing factors such as cognitive dissonance, the abysmal appreciation of intellectual vocations amongst public and the lack of willingness amongst intelligentsia to broadly construe and redefine the Geist of modernity itself. Whatever the precise reasons of the failure of intellectual resistance against this dominant Weltanschauung, the fact remains: religion, whether traditionally established or newly entered the fray, has capitalised on the growing discontent and resentment against this Form of Life (as for the popular notion of ‘spirituality’, so long as a respective belief system involves some metaphysical notions to ‘justify’ and articulate their Weltanschauung, it must be regarded as a form of religion. When it lacks metaphysics, then it could be understood as a modern form of self-help. It rarely is properly undertaken as a conscious aesthetic/philosophical praxis).

Naturally the problem with religion as means of ‘resistance’ is: it betrays its letters of intent. Religion, to all intents and purposes, has always been a tool of mass control: it is an effective way to write, rewrite and maintain the story of ‘people’. With its ability to manipulate the story/history of any given Geist, it is still an effective way to restrain/mobilise the masses. In this precise sense religion is a direct ancestor of modern political propaganda. Yet, despite its power over the masses, religious beliefs themselves cannot sustainably attain its ultimate end, that is, domination, without having access to material resources. Hence all religious practices inevitably establish some forms of institutions which are the pretext to the ‘synthesis’ between ’spiritual’ authority and the executive one. The common scheme is that the former affirms the legitimacy for the latter to rule, and the latter protects the material security of the former. Whilst the first half of the 20th Century saw the sharp decline of religious authority which conceded much of its function to political ideologies, it was brought back in business in the latter half of the 20th Century. Whilst the landscape of power has seen many changes since the beginning of modernity, the fundamental mechanism of governance has remained the same: in order to attain/maintain domination, a power-that-be must secure the means to control the masses. To this end, it must obtain two kinds of authorities: ‘spiritual’ and executive. This resulted in a curious case of contradiction which is specific to modern industrial era: the pious embraces science conditionally. They reject scientific world-view yet embrace its by-products, that is, technology and engineering. So long as science serves their end, the religious embraces modern science whose fundamental principle rejects metaphysics on which the legitimacy of a given religious belief system rests. Despite their rejection of science on metaphysical ground, their opportunistic embracement of science’s offspring, technology and engineering, is such that religious, who are supposed to uphold and safeguard morality, unquestionably embrace the development and the deployment of technological means to indiscriminately and effectively destroy nearly all life-forms. Whilst such a selective attitude toward science is perplexing and certainly inconsistent with their 'beliefs', once put in a proper context, it becomes clear that there is nothing to be surprised about this phenomenon: religion, just like executive power, serves the one and the sole end, that is, domination. And thus, so long as science provides us the weapons (e.g., guns, the Bomb) that win wars and ensure our domination over the Other, the religious would empathically stand by it.

At this point of inquiry, it is beneficial for us to re-frame the questions regarding Park’s attitude toward religious practices in Korea as follows: 1) What is the reason for Park’s apparent endorsement of Sindo over other religious practices in Korea?; 2) What aspect of Sindo does Park find helpful in the age of Industrial Materialism? The answer to the first question must be quite clear by now: Park appreciates the fact that Sindo has never enjoyed the official recognition as a proper religion despite its popularity and its distinct place in the development of Korean Geist. Despite all appearances, Park is a fierce critic of the established cultural narrative of his native South Korea. His darling masterpiece, The Handmaiden, represents the damning picture of Korean society under the Japanese rule. Two main villains are Korean imposters: they shamelessly assume Japanese identities to satisfy their insatiable greeds. Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) is a Korean collaborator who has been financially rewarded by Japanese for his contribution to the Japanese Anschluss of Korean Peninsula. He became a naturalised Japanese citizen by marrying a Japanese noblewoman whom he promptly commits to a secure mental institution. Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), on the other hand, is a Korean forger who steals the identity of a Japanese nobleman and plans to take full control of the enormous fortune left for Kouzuki’s niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by marrying her. Whilst these two Korean characters are morally degraded beyond human recognition, others are not far behind. Korean maids at Kouzuki’s estate cannot have enough of a handsome ‘Japanese nobleman’. The ‘den of thieves’, from where Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent to assist Fujiwara's elaborate swindle, operates an orphanage of Korean infants and assists their adoption to Japanese families for financial gain. Their daily routine is quite ‘efficient’: they show no hesitation in pacifying a fussing baby with a spoonful of rice wine. Throughout the duration of the movie, none mentions the cruelty of Japanese rule which has already inflicted the lasting scars on Korean Geist. The depth and the extent of Korean degeneration depicted in this film, although functional, is so damning that I for one have no idea how Park got away without a nationwide protest and condemnations. On the other hand, in his highly original take on Vampire genre, Thirst, Park unleashes his most uncompromising condemnation of Christianity. As a priest (Song Kang-ho) descends into a chaotic abyss of primordial human desires, his Christian faith offers no resistance. The man who once wished to sacrifice his life for greater good turns into: a vampire, an adulterer, a serial killer and a rapist. The irrelevance of religious faith reaches its culmination when the protagonist’s mentor reveals himself as a selfish old man with nothing to offer in terms of spiritual redemption. Again, given the history of Christianity in Korea, it is difficult to imagine how Park has not been publicly prosecuted by the Korean public. In both cases, the public reckoning would have been just as harsh as Park’s judgment on the official narrative on modern Korean history and culture. Park’s confrontation with the dominant narrative on such fundamental aspects of South Korean society could have been severely punished as a heresy. I for one am glad that such concerns have been unwarranted and Park continues to enjoy artistic freedom.

Given Park’s unorthodox view of his native South Korean Form of Life, it is not too difficult see why the director favours Sindo; despite its enduring popularity and the prominence within South Korean popular Form of Life, it has never been recognised as a proper religion by the political authority. By giving prominence to this popular practice of shamanistic rite in Night Fishing, Park highlights the schism within South Korean Geist; the official attitude toward religions on one hand, and the popular one on the other. Recognising this sharp disparity between the official national identity and the enduring popular cultural identity is of critical importance, for this duality explains most of the internal conflicts existing within South Korean society. For example, Bong Joon-ho’s international breakthrough feature, The Host (2006), represents the duality of South Korean Geist with the monster, the Gewalt that threatens the domination of humankind over the Other. The creature is arguably the metaphor for the polarity and the contradiction regarding South Korea’s conflicting attitude toward the presence and the function of the American military in the Korean Peninsula. Whilst widely regarded as an ‘necessary evil’ in the face of the military threat from its northern neighbour, just as in Japan, the American military’s pledge to protect its allies has been met with deep scepticism. Like all American bases around the world, there is a prevailing resentment against America’s military presence and its exploitative practice, especially the immunity granted for its military personnel; their criminal actions, especially that of a sexual nature, have been routinely gone unpunished. Whilst Bong’s exposé of the deep schism of contemporary South Korean society is quite timely and a pointed one, in Night Fishing, Park addresses the historic nature of duality existing within Korean Geist. By featuring this ancient religious practice, which has been dismissed as an outdated superstition by both religious and executive authorities, Park illuminates Korean Geist as an uneasy composite of two distinct Forms of Life: the official Form of Life on one hand, and the popular one on the other. Whilst they are indeed intertwined, it is abundantly clear which Lebensform enjoys Park’s support: he has consistently opposed the official narrative and, for the first time in his career, positively expressed his explicit support for the popular Form of Life by giving Sindo a central role in Night Fishing. It is unclear what the exact meaning of his endorsement of the popular Form of Life is. Is he espousing a form of political anarchism? Or is his anarchism strictly limited to cultural and intellectual praxis? Or does he actually believe in shamanism? Whilst we have no clarity to state one way or another, we can safely conclude: Park recognises the duality in South Korean Geist and he has made clear in which Form of Life he is interested.

And finally, there is one more question for us to ask: What has Park found in Sindo? Other than the political and historical reasons, is there anything in Sindo which Park finds helpful in addressing the modern existential discontent? How exactly is this ancient practice helpful in mitigating the effect of modern existential angst, that is, the crippling sense of meaninglessness, when all else have failed? To answer this question, first we must have a close look on what might make Sindo distinct from other religion for Park. Only then we can begin to properly understand the reasons why Park featured this ancient practice at the heart of this unearthly yet strangely moving short film. Whilst Sindo is one of many religions practiced in Korea, it enjoys a distinct place amongst Korean Geist as an ancient and a native practice. As a religion, it does have a set of beliefs and some vague metaphysical claims about afterlife. Like most religion, Sindo’s metaphysics involve some form of ‘reckoning’ and ‘judgment’ on one’s entire life against the moral standard set by gods before leaving the earth completely for a ‘better place’. Whilst the metaphysical notions of ‘gods’, ‘final reckoning’ and ‘afterlife’ are common amongst all religious practices, Sindo, like most ancient and popular beliefs, lacks a developed theology to justify its metaphysics and the institutions to eatablish it as a sociopolitical force. Its existence entirely relies on local shamans and popular beliefs in their supernatural abilities. Whilst it is altogether unclear just how Park is invested in Sindo and its metaphysics, a close examination of Night Fishing shows just how irrelevant the question is. Whilst Park features the images of deities in Night Fishing, the most important function of Sindo in this story is to show that there is a fundamental need for us humans to have this final moment of reconciliation and catharsis, and this occasion is only made ‘possible’ by the shaman’s ability to dramatise it. This ability to create a moment of catharsis by a dramatic enactment of the process of passing is unique to shamanistic traditions: no established major religion allows such a dramatic enactment of a final ‘direct’ interactions between the living and the dead. Although they all offer some form of rituals to provide moments of catharsis for the mourners, it is the priests themselves who speak for god(s), hence the therapeutic effect remains relatively anemic. Only shamanistic traditions can induce a robust catharsis amongst participants by allowing the dramatic enactment of a ‘direct’ communication between the living and the dead. The success of this practice hinges on the participants’ belief in a shaman, and her/their/his dramatic ability to persuade them of the truthfulness of the practice.

In Night Fishing, Lee Jung-hyun makes a strong case for this ancient practice’s power of persuasion. Lee’s explosive performance captivates our attention throughout the duration of this unapologetically ancient spectacle. The process of persuasion is carefully documented in the first half of the rite. The mourners initially appear stunned in disbelief in the midst of chaotic actions, and not without a good reason: it is not easy to see a lonely middle aged man in a young, beautiful and frenzied woman in a drenched traditional costume. Yet, it is Lee’s acting which makes every mourner believe the actuality of their final encounter with the dead. Once one realises this point, the question regarding Park’s faith in Sindo becomes moot. One can easily interpret this religious rite as a pure enactment of catharsis by aesthetic means. And shamanism does provide an occasion when the human need for catharsis in face of an overwhelming angst of life could be fulfilled through the dramatisation of the final tête-à-tête. Given the similarity of the process of an actor immersing herself/themselves/himself into a role and a shaman’s 'channelling', Night Fishing, at one level, is providing a persuasive case for the transformative/therapeutic capacity of dramatic art. Still, an aesthetically accomplished work such as Night Fishing can never be reduced to one simplistic scheme or another. Whilst there is little doubt that Night Fishing is about the most fundamental human condition, that is, the finiteness of human existence and the need for some form of catharsis in facing it, the fact remains that Park chose to demonstrate these subjects through the ancient native religious practice. And this is the point where Park’s critique of industrial Form of Life may be most acute. As we have been so advanced as to ceaselessly inventing the means of mass destruction with ever greater efficiency in our pursuit of domination to the point where we have been capable of the total annihilation of life for a very long time, modern civilisation has no concept of what it means to be human. Since the very concept of meaningfulness of human existence is antithetical to the Geist of Industrial Materialism, there is no hope of finding means to articulate such a meaningfulness within it.

In this light, Park’s enactment of this native ancient religious practice is more than a political act of defiance or a powerful case for the dramatic art's place in all human Forms of Life. This short film hits the heart of the matter regarding the discontent of Industrial Materialism. Whilst Park does not endorse religion in general, Night Fishing does offer a solemnly compassionate contemplation on our fundamental need for meaningfulness. To this end, it brings back the drama as it was understood by the ancient Greeks to whom the art and the religious worship were often one and the same. This particular attitude toward religion is useful for Park: it opens up a grey area between believing and unbelieving. This uncertainty makes all religion’s metaphysical claims necessary yet inconclusive, and renders religion a practical activities rather than metaphysical/moral subject. In short, religion is no longer about ‘teaching’ about the world and our place in it; it is all about its function to appease basic human angst. In short, in Sindo according to Park, religion becomes performative: it is something to do rather than something to believe in. To this end, a shaman becomes an actor whose task is to create a make-believe. Yet, again, Park is uncommitted: he is neither a believer nor an atheist. In his refusal to take side regarding the matter of faith on what Wittgenstein calls ‘mythical’ subjects, Park comes closer to Walter Benjamin whose ‘infatuations’ with occult and religion have become the source of much discomfort for the likes of Gershom Scholem, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt. By refusing to take side and replacing faith with make-believe, both Park and Benjamin stage subtle critique of modern Geist wherein the confrontation between faith and atheism has become uncompromising despite opportunistic appropriations of science by the believers. In this sense, both Park and Benjamin reside in a space of make-believe. This attitude should surely frustrate anyone who seeks to obtain one sense of certainty or another, yet this ambiguity alone can give us the sense of meaningfulness of our existence through the dramatic catharsis. And in putting this ambiguity into practice, Park rejects both, that is, believers and anti-believers.

Hence Night Fishing, despite its brevity, is an important movie both in terms of the subject and its scope, and can be judged against the most accomplished masterpieces such as Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. And this alone should be enough to persuade the serious audience to embark on a multiple, successive and obsessive viewing.

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, or Agassi, which literally means ‘Lady’) is the tenth feature film by one of the most acclaimed South Korean directors, Park Chan-wook (박찬욱), who is famous for his brand of highly sophisticated aesthetic representation of hyper-violence, darkly complex human psychology and deviant sexuality. Whilst yours truly is not well-versed in the history and the development of South Korean cinema, it is clear that Park Chan-wook has significantly contributed to the international standing of South Korean cinema. His ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, which is spearheaded by his career making breakout hit, Joint Security Area (공동경비구역, 2000), followed by Oldboy (올드보이, 2003) and Lady Vengence (친절한 금자씨, 2005), brought international attention to a group of young South Korean directors, resulting in the critical recognition of what one might now call South Korean New Wave cinema. Quentin Tarantino is an avowed admirer of Park, and famously pushed Oldboy for the Palm d’Or in 2004. Despite missing the coveted prize, Park became the runner-up with the Grand Prix, and has since collected many prestigious accolades such as Alfred Bauer Prize (2007 Berlin International Film Festival) and Golden Bear for Short Film (2011 Berlin International Film Festival) to name a few.

Whilst Park has made a career for himself with his aesthetics of hyper-violence, which might superficially put him in comparison with Takeshi Kitano, or even Nicolas Winding Refn whose philosophy of Gewalt is rarely discussed, the South Korean auteur has made a significant creative shift in recent years: he now counts the dark complexity of human psychology as the main subject of his cinema. This aesthetic maturity was first announced with his powerfully unsettling ‘vampire’ film, Thirst (박쥐, 2009), and continued to develop with his first English language film, Stoker (2013). Yet, his latest effort has seen him boldly moving into yet another territory. It is an interesting new development for Park: he has never called upon his deviant aesthetic philosophy as a means to advance his critical contention. Whilst Park’s knack for elegantly representing dark sensuality and the opacity of human psyche still graces the screen, yet, in The Handmaiden, his aesthetics is there to serve a clear purpose: every detail of lavish cinematography is directed to advance a singular critical point. Naturally it is too early to tell whether this marks the beginning of a sustainable new development or otherwise. Nonetheless, by virtue of hypnotising performances by Kim Min-hee (김민희, Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (김태리, Sook-hee) and Moon So-ri (문소리, Lady Hideko’s aunt), The Handmaiden unexpectedly emerges as an anti-patriarchal cinema of exceptional quality.

The Handmaiden is based on a British crime novel, Fingersmith (2002), by a Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Park took a considerable creative liberty in the process of adaptation: in addition to some significant changes to the plot, Park has transferred the background of the story from the Victorian England of the original novel to the 20th century Korea under Japanese occupation (This change of setting has provided Park an opportunity to break from the orthodox representation of modern Korean-Japanese relation in South Korean culture and media. I wish to elaborate more on this subject later). The story is told from multiple perspectives in a three-part narrative as in the original novel with some notable plot changes in order to bring a focus on the singularly most important aspect of the tale, that is, the unbreakable bond between two female protagonists, Lady Hideko and her chambermaid, Sook-hee. The Handmaiden begins its storytelling in the Part I from the perspective of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a skilled pickpocket raised in a ‘den of thieves’. She is sent to the estate of a Japanese magnate, Kouzuki, to assist a shady scheme concocted by a Korean confidence artist (Ha Jung-woo). According to the plan, the con-man presents himself as a Japanese noble, approaches the 'hapless Japanese heiress of great fortune', Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), seduces her, elopes with her to Japan, marries her only to commit her to a secure mental institution, sells off her inheritance and enriches himself. In return for her service Sook-hee would be given her share of profit. To this end, the con-artist presents himself as a Japanese noble, Count Fujiwara, and, after ridding of Lady Hideko’s chambermaid, he promptly recommends Sook-hee as the replacement and successfully infiltrate his target’s inner most circle: Sook-hee, called by her Japanese name ‘Tamako’, would aid the con-artist’s scheme as Lady Hideko’s entrusted companion. Yet, Sook-hee soon realises that things are going to be far more complicated than she initially assumed: she is flummoxed by Lady Hideko’s beauty at the first sight. The closer she becomes to Hideko, the harder it becomes for Sook-hee to suppress her smouldering passion toward her innocent ‘victim’.

Park demonstrates a highly sophisticated handling of a complex plot with many unexpected twists and turns. If one struggles to keep up with the Part I, which offers an absolute shocker as it closes, one must brace oneself for further delights. Park’s navigation of a complex narrative is always at ease, smoothing over any strains one might feel by following dramatic twists and turns as they unfold. Whilst being both structurally and psychologically quite intricate, The Handmaiden never present a moment of incomprehension: Park’s command of mise-en-scnène is such that one would gleefully follow him into every dark corner wherein macabre secrets would take one by surprise despite one’s anticipations. Upon seeing this film, it makes sense that Park was considered as one of the potential directors of the feature film adaptation of a le Carré classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, although I consider Tomas Alfredson the ideal choice for the project due to the Swede’s exceptional grasp of existential isolation, the ability to extract the affective undercurrent of any given story and his courage to commit to it at all cost. Still, Park is second to none when it comes to the sophisticated dramatisation of obscure human psyche. Although the South Korean, with his brand of smouldering sensuality and aestheticism, would be a difficult fit for George Smiley’s world, this acknowledgement is not a rebuke to Park’s talent and skill.

True to his form, Park makes it look easy by skilfully negotiating the layers and nuances of the three-part narrative. This impression serves as the evidence of Park’s directorial accomplishment: Park strikes a perfect balance between embracing the complexity without losing sight of its main critical contention, and being singularly focused on the Leitmotiv without becoming reductive. This is clearly shown in the manner in which Park handles some of the most sticky elements of the story. Take the historical backdrop of the movie: modern Korean-Japanese relation has been fraught with tension due to diabolical Japanese occupation of Korean Peninsula and Japan’s subsequent lack of sincerity in acknowledging its guilt. Yet, surprisingly, Park’s narrative moves through this period of great suffering rather light-footedly. Whilst the presence of frightening evil is unmistakably evident, the malice only lurks behind the scenes as metaphors instead of dictating them. The drama unfolds within a confinement of Lady Hideko’s uncle's enormous estate, and the war and the criminal activities of Japanese occupational force are not even mentioned. The narrative demonstrates a kind of lightness exemplified by a number of American heist movies such as Ocean’s Eleven, and, as a result, the audience is completely insulated from the great sufferings that traumatised Korean Geist. This is a shocking break from a convention which still dictates the terms in which Korea-Japanese relation is represented in Park’s native South Korea: given the 35 long years of brutal colonisation of Korean Peninsula suffered by the hands of Japanese, Park’s move should have been the surest way to commit a career suicide.

Yet, this is perhaps the tamest element of Park’s directorial decision: Park's adaptation of Waters' story renders no one as an innocent victim. In The Handmaiden, the majority of scheming ‘crooks’ are of Korean origin. Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woon), is an ambitious Korean native who was formerly an interpreter for the Japanese occupation force. He bribes his way into the inner circle of the occupation army, helps the annexation of Korean Peninsula to Japan and is financially awarded for his 'duty'. He becomes a naturalised Japanese citizen, marries an impoverished Japanese noble woman, sends her off to a secure mental institution and settles into the vast estate in the country he has betrayed. He becomes one of the richest men in Korea, collects rare books and hosts auctions of choice titles at his estate. Park shocks us by his treatment of war-time moral corruption in Korea: Kouzuki is not alone in regard to the brutally pragmatic acceptance of Japanese occupation. The con-artist shows no shame in masquerading as a Japanese nobleman, and none of his collaborators, including Sook-hee, questions such a tactic. Korean maids at Kouzuki’s estate are swooned by the presence of a young and handsome ‘Japanese’ and gleefully allow him to pick ‘law-hanging’ fruits as he pleases. One might struggle to come to terms with all the corruptions, still there is yet another, and far greater, upset: Sook-hee’s family has been trafficking Korean orphans to Japan for profit. Whilst the collusions enacted in The Handmaiden are disturbing in themselves, the manner in which they are dramatised is most unsettling: they are documented as if such betrayals are 'business as usual' under the colonial rule. Such a representation of Korean collusion with Japanese must be intensely controversial. Yet, as far as I can see, The Handmaiden has been well received in South Korea, garnering numerous prestigious awards. Whilst I am in no position to explain the reasons for the lack of backlash in Park’s native South Korea, it is clear that, despite the fact that The Handmaiden is a fiction, hence not a representative case of Korean attitude toward Japanese occupation, Park’s atypical representation of the complex Korea-Japan relation during the occupation breaks the mould. It certainly helps the audience to focus on the drama between the Lady, the crook and the accomplice. Furthermore, by finding the darkness within his fellow Koreans, Park presents the opaqueness and the complexity of human psyche significantly better than the conventional narrative which unilaterally serves the authoritarian South Korean media policies (To have a quick overview of the tension between cinema and politics in South Korea, please read an excellent article by Matt Kim [link]). In this light, perhaps Park’s treatment of the period is not at all about the relation between South Korea and Japan: it must be all about his reaction to the intricacy of South Korean culture and politics.

This is not to say that Park is easy on Japanese. Whilst the evil of Japanese occupation is hardly present on the screen, Park has found a way to treat ‘Japanese’ as a fatally corrupting influence. To this end, Park choses Japanese language, rather than Japanese people, as the host of corrupting disease: Better the command of Japanese, more corrupted one becomes. Whilst this is a rather subtle way of representing diabolical nature of Japanese rule, its dramatic effect is unmistakable. For instance, one of the most striking directorial decisions made by Park for The Handmaiden is the manner of Lady Hideko’s speech: she hardly speaks Japanese. Despite the fact that every servant speaks Japanese fluently, Lady Hideko communicates her wishes with flawless Korean. Inquired by Sook-hee of her preference, she simply states that she is wary of Japanese due to her demanding daily reading session in Japanese under the strict supervision of her bibliophile uncle. It turns out that her ‘reading session’ has been nothing but a practice of perversion. Kouzuki forces Hideko to practice a dramatic reading of pornographic writings in order for him to stage Hideko’s ‘reading’ in front of the prospective buyers of his prized title on auction. On such occasions, Hideko is dressed in a beautiful Japanese kimono to intensify the pervert male gaze set upon her during the dramatic presentation of explicit materials. It is a decadent theatrical staged by a Korean collaborator for the amusement of the corrupt Japanese ruling class for whom the bloodsheds on the battle fields and the streets are remote events occurring in some possible world. Kouzuki forces his niece with no sexual experience to dramatise a sexual act of the most deviant kind in letters in front of ‘gentlemen’ to serve his ultimate purpose: selling off his ‘rare’ books with prohibitive prices. If the above description defies our comprehension, there is one more piece to complete this extraordinary abomination: Kouzuki has no intention of parting with his collection; he instead produces and sells the forgeries of his rare titles. By the time we learn the exact nature of the darkness residing in the house of Kouzuki, we will no longer question the reasons why Hideko detests Japanese language: it is the representation of an incredibly sadistic and corrupt Form of Life. Japanese speaking in The Handmaiden is thus a plague: it corrupts anyone who learns to speak it.

This attitude toward Japanese language is very much in line with the official South Korean policy: Japanese is a forbidden language, and the broadcasting of Japanese media such as music and cinema is legally prohibited. In The Handmaiden, it is clear that, better a character’s command of Japanese, worse her/their/his moral corruption. Just as Kouzuki’s status as a wealthy ‘Japanese’ magnate signifies his fall, the con-man boasts an excellent Japanese both in speech and in writing. If this is all there is, Park’s treatment of the historical context in which the story unfolds is correct if not uncharacteristically conventional for this Korean maverick. Fortunately Park has seen further than the most. Japanese speech is not only the language of Imperial Japan; it is the language of patriarchy for which there is only one mode of existence: seeking to quench an insatiable thirst for domination. In this light, Park’s decision to present two arch villains as Koreans makes sense: regardless their respective origins, they are themselves patriarchies who seek to establish, extend and safeguard their domination over the Other by force and/or deceit. They single-mindedly seek to gain greater access to power despite the fact that they have no use of power except extending its reach. The gender specific function of the speech in this film is further represented by Sook-hee’s linguistic underdevelopment: despite speaking good Japanese, ‘Tamako’ is illiterate. Not only is she unable to read the letter of recommendation written for her in Japanese by ‘Count Fujiwara’, she cannot even read or write her own name in the Hangul. Yet, her alienation from 'respectable' Forms of Life paradoxically turns out to be the sign of human decency: Sook-hee eventually establishes a true companionship with Hideko, and two women jointly turn the schemes of male sadists to their heads. It is important to note the gender line drawn between Japanese and Korean: in The Handmaiden Japanese is the language of patriarchies and Korean is mostly spoken by our female protagonists, Hideko and Sook-hee. Hence, in Park’s hand, the tension between two respective languages, that is, Korean and Japanese, is not only functioning as a reminder of a grave historical/political point of contention: it also functions as a theoretical device to probe gender inequality at a metaphorical level. This is where Park finds himself in a company of two English: Alex Garland and Virginia Woolf. As in The Three Guineas, Park makes a strong and clear political statement with his treatment of languages in The Handmaiden: the destructive force we all suffer has a gender, that is, male gender, hence its language of choice must be Japanese in The Handmaiden. As in Ex Machina, two women stage the fall of patriarchy thorough their secret communications. Whilst the rebellion in Ex Machina results in Ava’s liberation and Kyōko’s destruction, hence only half successful, in The Handmaiden both women establish their agency for the first time and forge an unbreakable bond. Like in Orlando, there is a clear embracement of gender fluidity in The Handmaiden: at one point, Hideko takes over the con-man's identity and presents herself as a handsome 'Japanese' nobleman. And, importantly, the language they speak is Korean, the language of the oppressed in this specific context.

Hence The Handmaiden emerges quite unexpectedly as an anti-patriarchal cinema (I have already written about the reasons why someone who has never been discriminated as a woman cannot be a feminist yet still be able to identify oneself as an anti-patriarchal critic in my article on Ex Machina: [see]), and it is an excellent one at that. Kim Min-hee (Lady Hideko) and Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee/Tamako) deliver spellbinding performance throughout the duration of the film. Kim Tae-ri’s acting in the Part I is absolutely mesmerising in the moments of her infatuation with Lady Hideko. When Sook-hee bursts out and tells grieving Hideko, whose mother died of giving her birth, that no child should be blamed for the death of the mother, Kim Tae-ri creates one of the most emotionally satisfying moment of the film. In the Second Part, it is Kim Min-hee’s turn to hypnotise the audience. Kim Min-hee commands the screen so absolutely that the audience should be left with no doubt whatsoever who would come on top of this multi-layered drama of deceits and betrayals. Kim Min-hee’s performance in a scene wherein Hideko confronts Sook-hee and demands to tell her true feeling about Hideko's impending marriage to the Japanese noble undoubtedly produces the most emotionally absorbing moment of the entire cinema. This scene also prepares the moment of revelation about the nature of The Handmaiden: Park methodically maintains a certain affective distance from the unfolding dramas throughout the duration of the cinema. This is most clearly pronounced in the scene immediately following the aforementioned confrontation between Hideko and Sook-hee. Having ‘discovered’ that Sook-hee does not love her enough to plead her not to marry a man, Hideko, in her desperation, hangs herself from a tree. Sook-hee comes to a rescue, supports Hideko by legs and confesses her role in the crook's nefarious scheme, violently sobbing in shame. In return, still hanging from a tree with the noose tight around her neck, Hideko reveals that it is in fact Sook-hee who is tricked by the scheme designed by Hideko and the con-man. What follows this deeply emotional exchange is a comedy of absurd quality: in rage against the con-man, Sook-hee momentarily let go of Hideko and the Lady nearly dies. It is an interesting way of putting Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (most commonly known as ‘alienation effect’ in the English speaking world) into practice without betraying the spirit of Brecht’s theory. Whilst Park’s reason for creating this effect is not the same with Brecht’s (the South Korean director is not a dialectical materialist), they both succeed in creating a ‘space of reasons’ between the drama and the audience. By preventing the affective absorption of the audience to the drama, they direct the viewers toward critical reflection of the stage or the cinema in question. Unlike Brecht, Park relies on supposedly improper comedic representation of the scenes, yet these comedic moments do produce a proper Verfremdungseffekt: despite initial impressions, it breaks affective connection between the audience to the characters. Then one must ask: What would be Park’s purpose of consistently employing Verfremdungseffekt in The Handmaiden? The answer is: Park has a point to make. His polemic is: a male director cannot speak for women; he can only express his stand against patriarchy. This is precisely the point Park shares with Alex Garland: the director of Ex Machina has been respectfully observing this distinction, as I have discussed in my analysis of his debut feature. Whilst it is hardly possible not to sympathise with female protagonists’ horrifying predicaments and cheer for their defiance, resilience and eventual liberation, Park’s timely comedic intervention keeps a certain affective distance between himself, the audience and the drama.

Whilst both The Handmaiden and Ex Machina may represent the best anti-patriarchal cinema of the early 21st century, they are nonetheless very different films. Ex Machina is a painstakingly constructed slow-burner with suffocatingly oppressive quality: it does not allow a surge of strong emotion in the audience. The only emotion that creeps into our psyche is an icy dread. Garland’s control over the audience’s affection is so complete that not even the eventual liberation of the protagonist, Ava (Alicia Vikander), does not make us feel liberated. Given such an absolute affective alienation, Ex Machina may be considered a master-class of Verfremdungseffekt. The problem with Ex Machina is that Garland follows his method to the detriment of what could have been a masterpiece: Ex Machina eventually and inevitably squeezes life out of cinematic experience despite its exceptional intellectual merit. Garland’s debut feature, notwithstanding the plot, is an ultimate anti-drama in a proper Shakespearian sense of the word. As the great Bard demonstrated, the abjection needs not result in the death of affective reactions. Every moment of Shakespeare’s tragedies stirs our emotion with great urgencies which only a great drama can muster. And this point is duly demonstrated by contemporary cinema. Take Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which is perhaps one of the bleakest movies of the early 21st century. Ryan Gosling’s android protagonist, K, hardly expresses any emotions, yet the dramatic effect of his affective muteness is profound. Consider also Ridley Scott’s arguably the best directorial work to this day, Alien: Covenant. It is one of the darkest films both in terms of mood and philosophy. Yet it even manages to create a moment of an ironically emphatic finale: having returned to the ship as Walter by making use of their identical appearance, David 8 (Michael Fassbender) reveals his true form, leaves Daniels (Katherine Waterson) in despair and takes control of the ship full of hosts who can be reserved as raw materials for his ‘creation’. With Wagner’s finale from Das Rheingold ascending in the background, David’s triumphal march into a 'new dawn' is at once strangely elating and quite understandably despairing. These movies again prove a point: the affectively oppressive story needs not be anti-dramatic. Unfortunately Alex Garland has not yet mastered this aspect of film making. Ex Machina is theoretically flawless and profoundly thoughtful, yet it fails to produce a single drama in a proper sense throughout the duration of the film.

Despite the light tone with numerous self-consciously awkward comedic moments, Park avoids this pitfall mostly by virtue of the performance of two main casts, that is, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. In The Handmaiden, we see an act of love and solidarity between two persons despite Park’s consistent reliance on Verfremdungseffekt by means of one of the most quintessentially South Korean quality: awkwardly self-conscious comedic moments. Furthermore, knowing that a male director has no way of representing a sexual act between two women without committing an injustice, Park resorts to yet another method of achieving Verfremdungseffekt: adopting every worn-out cliché of lesbian pornography filmed to satisfy hereto-male sexuality. He does so in a tongue-in-cheek manner that these scenes become self-conscious parodies of lesbian pornography. Yet, on the strength of two protagonists’ performance, these scenes occasionally induce a positive affective state in the audience: personally I have never seen a pure joy of human connection in sexual action on screen as performed by these two extraordinary actors. As Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Je Tu Il Elle (1974), culminates by capturing the uninhibited lust between two women, these moments of joy in The Handmaiden reminds us that the scenes enacting physical intimacy can be dramatic in a proper sense of the word. In fact, The Handmaiden is full of such dramas: Hideko’s smouldering fury against her male counterparts is as dark and intense as their crookedness, while Sook-hee’s moment of explosive anger against Kouzuki provides one of the most electrifying moments of the film. This improbable balance between the conscious awkwardness and a dramatic dynamism makes The Handmaiden a master-class. The Handmaiden exemplifies what Park Chan-wook has achieved for South Korean cinema: by carefully cultivating the elements of South Korean cinema, he has nonetheless produced a universally representative masterpiece. Hence The Handmaiden should be considered both the landmark of South Korean cinema and of anti-patriarchy film of our time. It is an exercise in cinematic excellence: Park decisively demonstrates that theoretical complexity and philosophical profundity are not mutually exclusive with dramatic dynamism. For this insight, we are all indebted to Park, his cast and team for giving life to such an outstanding project.