Tuesday, April 18, 2017

'The Age of Shadows' and 'The Handmaiden' Are Intense, Gripping, Stylish Thrillers Set in Japanese-Occupied Korea

The Age of Shadows and The Handmaiden are two Korean films that had some significant buzz last awards and film festivals season.  They were released in South Korea last year, but it’s now in 2017 in which most international audiences have the chance of watching them and both had received critical acclaim.

Both movies are intense thrillers that I found to be challenging to watch but intellectually engaging.
The Age of Shadows, which is set during the early 1920’s in Japanese-occupied Korea, revolves around a Korean captain named Lee Jung-chool (played by Song Kang-ho, the star of The Host and The Good, The Bad, The Weird – two of my three all-time favorite Korean movies – and who also had a role in Snowpiercer) who has risen up the ranks of the Japanese police force by selling out his own people.  In his latest assignment, he has been asked to root out members of the Korean resistance.  To accomplish the task, he approaches and befriends Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, star of last year’s Train to Busan, which I extremely enjoyed), an antique shop owner who is secretly a high ranking officer of the resistance.  Both men are aware of each other’s real identity and purpose, as they maintain an appearance of friendship while trying to read what is on each other’s minds.  As the time draws closer to the resistance’s endgame, Kim Woo-jin decides to take the risk of laying all his cards on the table; he recruits Lee Jung-chool to help the resistance, hoping that the chance of redemption will entice him to switch sides.

At the core, this is a gritty espionage thriller, thick with intrigue, mystery, and tension.   It features a high-stakes cloak-and-dagger plot that involves deceptions, mind games, double agents, and death.  However, there are times in which the pacing gets bogged down and the writing gets a bit choppy.  It’s here where the movie gets slightly hard to focus on.  Fortunately, it has been able to quickly recover from these pitfalls, thanks in no small part to the quality acting (especially from the two main characters), stylish production value, great camera work, and narrative depth.
Meanwhile, sharing the same setting but being a thriller in a different sense, The Handmaiden is a story about an enigmatic Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) living on a secluded state whom a Korean conman (Ha Jung-woo), with the help of a pickpocket he recruited to act as her handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri), intends to defraud of her wealth.

And that synopsis should be enough.  Offering more plot details would probably spoil the movie, as the potency of its narrative arguably hinges on its strong, surprising plot twists.  It has uncomfortable erotic content though.  But beyond that, it’s an eerie, gripping psychological thriller in the same vein of Oldboy (the third of my three most favorite Korean movies ever) – which is something to be expected, really, for both movies have the same director: Park Chan-wook.  Furthermore, it feels like a clinic for arthouse cinema, with its stylish visuals, compelling script, and fluent direction and acting.
With The Age of Shadows and The Handmaiden, it’s seems like South Korea is looking to be a consistent contributor to good quality filmmaking to the international market every year.

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