It's the late 1930's. Japan
has occupied Korea (and Manchuria), but is not yet at war with the United
States. It is a time of
ascendancy for the Japanese, and oppression for the Koreans.
That's part of the reason it feels so good for a bunch a Korean
swindlers to plan a “long con” on a Japanese nobleman.
It seems that Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) lives on a palatial
estate and his prized possession is his library.
His niece, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is apparently his only heir,
and since she is of marriageable age, the “con” is that one of the
swindlers presents himself as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a suitor for
Lady Hideko. Simultaneously,
they arrange for Lady Hideko to have a new handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri),
who's part of the same gang of Korean swindlers.
She's supposed to encourage Lady Hideko to be interested in Count
Fujiwara. Her mother,
apparently, was a famous and accomplished pickpocket, until one day she
got caught and hanged. Ironically,
Lady Hideko's Aunt killed herself by hanging, and Lady Hideko still has
nightmares about her ghost in the maple tree outside her window.
The trouble with a “long con” is that circumstances, and
personalities, can change. Sook-Hee
finds herself becoming fond of Lady Hideko, who seems to be so naive and
sheltered, though apparently well-educated.
From Sook-Hee's perspective, “Count” Fujiwara seems to be
clumsy with his courtship, or could it be that Sook-Hee doesn't really
want Lady Hideko to fall in love with him, after all?
But nothing is quite as it appears.
We know that Sook-Hee is not exactly the wide-eyed innocent that
she pretends to be, but then we learn that Lady Hideko isn't, either.
As for Uncle Kouzuke, he's an out-and-out pervert, and many of
those fabulous books he treasures are actually pornographic.
He invites rich friends over to listen to a gorgeous young woman
read to them, with passion and feeling.
And yes, the sexuality simmers just below the surface not only for
the courting couple, but even for Lady Hideko and her handmaiden, who
sometimes share a bed on a dark, stormy, night----but what if cozy comfort
becomes suddenly sensual?
Director Chan-wook Park utilizes the “differing point of view”
perspective, filming the same scene from the standpoint of different
characters, with obviously divergent motivations.
The symphonic music makes for a lyrical background to a
less-than-prosaic plot, as we pirouette between drawing-room dialogue and
street slang, from painting instruction to an unexpected torture scene;
and all the while we're wondering just who is loyal to whom, and whose
betrayal will be the most surprising.
And yes, parts of the film are overtly sexual, but there is a
breadth of perspective there, from tenderness to masochism, from cynical
pretense to breathtaking discovery. There
may be people you would be uncomfortable viewing it with (like your Sunday
School class), and some may object to the ribald language, as well:
but is it once-removed; muted, somehow, by being translated on the
screen instead of spoken aloud in English?
It's a long complicated film with subtitles, but you need to get
there on time and pay attention throughout to catch the nuances of the
plot twists. It's definitely
not your average popcorn and root beer movie.
More like sushi and chamomile, for acquired tastes.