By Jenna Gibson
Among the big Korean films of 2016, two of the biggest explored the colonial Japanese period, but they couldn’t be more different.
Age of Shadows, a box office success, is a spy thriller that follows a Korean police captain-turned double agent who reluctantly works with the Korean resistance. The other, The Handmaiden, twists and turns through the lives of two women, a Japanese noble and the handmaiden who was hired to con her. One is a more or less straightforward action movie with admittedly deep character building. The other is a subtle masterpiece of code-switching, sexuality, and empowerment.
One was put forward by Korea as their chance at the foreign language Oscar. The other was not.
The first thing I did when I saw the notification pop up on the bottom of my screen that the 2017 nominations were out was ctrl + f for my favorite two movies of the year. First, Moonlight – several well-deserved nominations, although I expected more. Then The Handmaiden…nothing. I was stunned.
After some frantic googling, I learned that others were shocked as well. And that the reason for this snub was not that it didn’t deserve a nomination (it certainly does), but that Korea had made a different choice for its one entry into the pool – Age of Shadows.
Korea has put forward films for consideration since 1962, and has done so regularly since the mid-1980s. It has never had a film chosen for nomination. After seeing this year’s choice, it’s not that Korea doesn’t have quality films (it does), but it may not be nominating the types of films the Academy is looking for.
Take, for example, Old Boy – probably the best-known Korean movie outside of the peninsula. It was widely acclaimed and won more than 30 awards from around the world, including the Grand Prix at Cannes. But Old Boy, which ironically was also directed by The Handmaiden’s Park Chan-wook, was not the film Korea put forward to the Academy in 2004*. Instead, they chose a movie called Tae Guk Gi, which, while a great war movie, only one a single award outside of Korea, from the U.S.-based Political Film Society. This doesn’t indicate the kind of broad, international appeal that Old Boy had, which may have hooked the members of the Academy.
This year’s gap is even more stark – The Handmaiden won 44 awards from all around the world, plus an additional 53 nominations. Age of Shadows, in contrast, won five awards, four of which were from domestic Korean organizations. Of course, having a laundry list of awards does not guarantee a film will do well at the Oscars. But it certainly indicates that The Handmaiden fits better into what film critics may be looking for.
Don’t get me wrong, Age of Shadows was a good movie. So were Rogue One and Dr. Strange. But none of them would ever be in real contention for an Oscar win (excluding, of course, well-deserved nods for visual/sound effects).
Perhaps the main problem goes back to how the two films handle a similar time period in drastically different ways. While The Handmaiden spins a tale of intrigue and romance that weaves implications of colonialism and oppression throughout, Age of Shadows takes a less subtle route. The very first line of the film’s plot summary on Wikipedia says it is about “A Korean police captain named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) whose cruel Japanese overlords have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement,” setting the scene for a very black-and-white action drama. In fact, as one critic wrote, “In short, mainstream audiences should get a kick out of this polished, often exciting patriotist drama. But those looking for a deeper, mightier resonance would be well advised to keep their expectations in check.”
In contrast, The Handmaiden is a layer of complexities, from its Shyamalan-worthy plot twists to its well-developed LGBT storyline to its portrayal of Korean identity and language under Japanese rule. In the words of Atlantic critic David Sims, “More than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core.”
That human core, is key to Oscar success, as is taking universal themes like violence or loneliness and telling them in creative ways, had pervaded many of the Academy’s choices, particularly in the Foreign Language category. And while The Handmaiden lacks the gravitas of many previous winners, it certainly hits the mark on innovation.
Awards aren’t everything, and certainly neither are the Oscars. But it is frustrating to see such an innovative, unique, and genuinely entertaining film lose out on the chance to present itself in front of a huge audience of potential viewers from around the world. The Handmaiden and, frankly, Korean film in general, deserve better.
*Because of special Academy Award eligibility rules for the foreign film category, Old Boy would have been submitted for the 2004 Oscars despite having been released at the end of 2003.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from lincolnblues’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.