Justice Herbert-Wattie: How does Park Chan Wook reference his past whilst evolving beyond it?

Video Essay Creators´ statement

How does Park Chan Wook reference his past whilst evolving beyond it?

When watching The Handmaiden again, one of the things that stuck out to me was the progression of Park Chan Wooks style in the time period between The Vengeance Trilogy, composed of Sympathy For Mr Vengeance(2002), Oldboy(2003), And Sympathy For Lady Vengeance(2005),  and The Handmaiden. Whilst those films used similar techniques to those used in The Handmaiden to keep the audience invested, like the lush cinematography, the use of colour, the focus on performances, twists, and editing, it struck me that Chan Wook was also moving towards increasingly progressive elements with his filmmaking, with Oldboy portraying its only female character as indirectly humiliated with sleeping with her own father, and without any agency, to Sympathy For Lady Vengeance featuring a female protagonist but nonetheless using gay and queer women characters to be effectively mocked at the expense of that protagonist, to The Handmaiden portraying both a Japanese-Korean queer couple at its centre, but also being an explicit rumination on womens agency and sexuality by featuring it’s two leads being controlled by powerful men who eroticize them that they then ultimately manipulate.

In my video essay I was looking to explore and explain both the ways in which The Handmaiden uses a plot structure that would be familiar to fans of Park Chan Wook, in particular with the use of twists; whilst at the same time looking at the progress Park Chan Wook has made in becoming a more socially conscious and aware filmmaker. Therefore, I decided to focus on what I considered to be three key moments in the film, The reveal of Sook Hee as a thief, the reveal of Lady Hideko’s apparent betrayal, and the scene in which Sook Hee saves Lady Hideko from hanging, revealing that their relationship is genuine and that, unlike most Park Chan Wook protagonists, particularly Oh Dae Su in Oldboy, they may have a happy ending after all.

To complement this structure, I decided to also include some branches away from exclusively talking about these plot points in order to both keep the viewers attention (attempting to apply the information I learned from both Orson Welle’s F Is For Fake and Tony Zhou’s video essays). Firstly, I decided to mention one of the elements of The Handmaiden I thought Wook had gleaned from feminist filmmaking, his use of affect and touch in the relationship between Sook Hee and Lady Hideko, which to me recalled filmmaking like the Piano, to help explain this I included a quote from Laura Mulvey talking about affect and the gaze.

My second digression was to talk about Oldboy and how that used a similar reliance on twists and wrongfooting the audience to create both drama, but also to deconstruct the protagonist, eventually leaving him entirely broken and humiliated. In doing this, my intention was also to build up a sense of stake and narrative for the end of my video essay, ultimately, I wanted to give the context for a viewer to be in a relatively similar emotional headspace to where I was when I watched the Handmaiden for the first time. Adding to that, I included a little background into the portrayal of LGBT characters in the Vengeance trilogy, with Sympathy for lady vengeance having what I thought was a pretty unflattering portrayal of either portraying its queer characters as either pretty monstrous (I didn’t have enough time to show the portrayal of the gay prisoner in sympathy whose constantly portrayed as ugly and inhuman before she’s slowly poisoned to death) or hopeless romantic’s without their own agency in the story.

My intention with focusing on these portrayals was to make the fact The Handmaiden subverts pre-conceived notions of Park Chan Wook movies with moments like the scene where Sook Hee saves Lady Hideko from hanging to seem all the more miraculous, and ultimately, to show how Park Chan Wook uniqueness in evolution as a filmmaker by rejecting the cynicism of his earlier films to make a very progressive (especially for Korea), ultimately positive queer romance. In the final part of the essay, I decided to display a quote from a essay I found particularly interesting giving a feminist critique of the Handmaiden that I thought was both interesting on its own and provided further reading for a viewer, and a quote from Park Chan Wook himself reinforcing my point.


The Handmaiden, Dir. Park Chan Wook, 2016, prod. Moho Film, Yong Film

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Dir. Park Chan Wook, 2005, Distributed by CJ Entertainment

Oldboy, Dir. Park Chan Wook, 2003, Prod. Show East


Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures,edited by Laura Mulvey, and Anna Backman Rogers, Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Feminist Visions in “The Handmaiden” and “The Beguiled”, Natalie Morningstar, Kings Review, Feb 27th 2018

Goran Topalovic Interviews Park Chan Wook, Film Comment, Oct 28th 2016

Justice Herbert-Wattie

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