Screening Korea
The relentless resistance of Korean women during the colonial period
Categories: Uncategorized

By Cuong Nguyen

According to Karl Marx, human history is the history of struggle. People are constantly fighting for their rights and progressive ideas. It’s those relentlessly conflicts that distinguishes different human societies with structures and characteristics, in which everyone experiences their position within the society differently. During the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s, Korean women was experiencing restraints by the traditional values of Confucianism, but Korean women still modernized their thought and fought for their rights. That struggle can be observed through the conflict between the main characters’ physical expressions and their inner emotions in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016) and Yang Joo-nam’s “Sweet Dream” (1936).

[Spoiler alert, please watch the films if possible before continue]

The Handmaiden was one of the best movies the author has watched, and is reluctant of writing this blog knowing that there will be people who has not watch the film reading this review. The movie is a combination of Park Chan-wook’s intelligent directing skills and a novel-adapted story about abusive, love, manipulation, hatred, and many themes that uncover themselves every time the movie is rewatched.

The Handmaiden’s story revolved around Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress who was living with her uncle Kouzuki. Since she was young, Hideko was abused by her uncle and forced to not show her emotions. She was forced by her uncle to replace her ant’s duty of reading erotic novel to their guests, the job that lead to her ant’s suicide. She made a plan with a conman name Count Fujiwara to flee from her uncle’s control by placing a maiden in her place in the asylum. The maid, Sook-hee, convinced by Fujiwara that she was on a plan to con Lady Hideko’s inheritance while not knowing the grand scheme, tried to become close to Hideko to persuade her with marrying Fujiwara. Sook-hee and Hideko developed feeling for each other, but was too afraid of confronting it. They ultimately told each other their intentions and decided to make their own plan involving vengeance on both Kouzuki and Fujiwara. The movie ended with them escaping the country together as lovers.

The Handmaiden is Park Chan-wook’s ultimate expression of his believe in love and freedom. Through the characters’ actions and reactions through the small screen, the film successfully captured the spectrum of emotions between envy and rage, and happy and sad. Even the emotionless face of Hideko when she was little spoke so much to the viewers about the emotions that Hideko was going through. Park Chan-wook did a genius job of juicing the emotions out of an emotionless being through her history and her interactions with others. He has been practicing that technique through many of his previous movies like Old Boy (2003) and Joint Security Area (2000). In an interview with CNN, Park said films should be able to break boundaries. He also said there will be people who will critique him, and that he was aware of it, but he believed he should break those boundaries, for it has merits.

The Handmaiden 43:38-One of the most controversial scene of the film, when the two main characters made love for the first time. Park Chan-wook pushed the boundary of what is acceptable in a movie.


Park Chan-wook was able to evoke so many emotions from the characters because he was able to remind the audiences of how it felt like when they are trapped in the same situation. In the interview with AV Club, Park said the reason why revenge came up so many times in his movies was because everyone can relate to the idea of revenge. See what makes the characters decided to take a direct action, the audiences felt for the characters and agreed with their actions, despite for those acts are “meaningless,” in the words of Park himself. That is the reason why the audiences could feel for Lady Hideko. When we watched how an innocent young girl was forced into an emotionless being, we remember those times we were forced to do something instead of freely expressing ourselves. We felt the pain and anger every time Hideko was hit by her uncle. But especially, we felt sick when we saw Hideko reading the book for her uncle’s guests. She became so emotionless and so pretentious that it was hard for us to continue watching the film.

The Handmaiden 1:15:36-The emotionless face of Lady Hideko when she read an erotic novel. The audiences wouldn’t have feeling for this image if they haven’t watched the film. The leading up to this point in the film made the audiences felt sorry for Lady Hideko.

Despite that anger and sadness, the image of Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden also gave us hope. Through the chronological order of the film, Hideko unveiled to be stronger than what we thought of her physical interactions with other characters. She understood her position and had been trying to find a way to escape from her bondage. She even prepared for her suicide, which she considered to be her ultimate escape. She has the determination to gain independence for herself. Lady Hideko’s situation is the same with the character Ae-soon in Yang Joo-nam’s Sweet Dream.

The 1936 film is about the story of Ae-soon, who was living with her husband and their daughter, Jeong-hee. Not like other traditional house-wife at the time, Ae-soon had the love for wealth and modernization. She left Jeong-hee and her husband for a wealthy man named Chang-geon. The tittle Sweet Dream could be the dream of Jeong-hee wanting her mother back, as well as Ae-soon looking for a better place in life. She even tried to leave Chang-geon for a lead dancer after a dance performance, only to get rejected. As soon as she found out that Chang-geon was a fraud, she reported him to the police and left. During Ae-soon’s attempt to catch the train, her cab had an accident with Jeong-hee. Ae-soon committed suicide in the hospital from the guilt of her killing her daughter.

There is no doubt that Ae-soon’s actions were wrong. She left her family in the pursuit of wealth and power. She doesn’t value her husband and her daughter as much as she values money. The audiences after watching the film were likely to have the same conclusion. But the author of this paper would like to offer an alternative view on Ae-soon, to give her a reason for her actions. During the 1930s, when the movie takes place, it’s hard to be a Korean housewife. She was expected to stay at home and complete all of the house task when the husband was working outside. Her life could be compared to a bird in the cage, an image that appears repeatedly in Sweet Dream. Her action was the result of her tire from her status. Her attempt to flee from her house is an escape from the traditional life that trapped her in a cage. The ending of the movie is a lesson for the audiences to value the traditional family setting and not try to escape it. For a movie produced in 1930s, that ending is understandable in the current situation: A movie with a rebellious theme would not be published with a happy ending for the rebel.

Sweet Dream 1:18-The image of the bird nest, an image represents the position of Ae-soon: being trapped in a cage.

The reason why both Sweet Dream’s Ae-soon and The Handmaiden’s Lady Hideko acted their way is because of how Korean family setting has been developed. Like many other classical family setting, in Confucianism, the wives take care of the housework as the husband gather resources from the outside. Despite the fact that this setting seemed to divide the works equally, the position of the wives is always lower than the husband. As someone who stay at home, the wife becomes dependent of the husband. It’s a stigmatization that she doesn’t have the ability to survive on her own. That idea place the position of the wife under the husband’s. Despite the fact that there were more and more women who were able to be independent from any men during the Japanese colonization period, the stigmatization held strong. Women during that period felt the same way as Ae-soon, trapped inside a birdcage. She is a decoration and an entertainment for her husband.

Despite those traditional bondages during the Japanese colonizing period, there are women who raised against the moment, to put themselves into history as those who dare to challenge the system. One of those women is Hwallan Kim, or Helen Kim. Born in a modern family in Incheon, Helen Kim’s mother was determined that her children would receive the best education, despite their genders. Helen Kim graduated from Ewha Girls School before obtaining her bachelor degree at Wesleyan College in the States. She then received a master in philosophy from Boston University and doctorate in education from Columbia University. Helen Kim is the first Korean women to receive a PhD. After her education, she traveled back to Korea where she became the dean of Ewha College, the biggest women’s college in the world back then. She worked as the director of Office of Public Information under the presidency of Syngman Rhee. She also published the first English newpaper in Korea, the Korean Times.

Despite her controversy that she believed in the colonization of Japan and, later, the protection of the States, Helen Kim still had a stronger sense of being independent than other Korean women. No one can deny her contribution to the country. Not only she helped Ewha College became the largest women college in the world and she help founded Korea Young Women’s Christian Association, she was the first Korean woman to receive a PhD from one of the most prestige university in the world. Maybe Helen Kim saw the benefits of being under protection from bigger countries. Isn’t it during the colonial period that Korea underwent significant development? As can be seen in the movie Sweet Dream, during the colonial period, there were department stores, personal cars, and trains. Maybe it’s that Helen Kim valued the development of the country as a whole more than the personal gain of a group of people. That would also explain her resistance from working with Marxist and Communism ideology. No matter how controversy did Helen Kim cause, she is still an example of a progressive woman who dares to step out of their boundaries to fight for themselves.

From the images of The Handmaiden’s Lady Hideko and Sweet Dream’s Ae-soon, and the real-life example of Helen Kim, the appearance of the spirit to break the traditions within Korean women during the Japanese colonizing period is undeniable. These women had determination to break out of their shells and achieve their best selves. Like Karl Marx’s ideology, their struggle will result in an increase in their knowledge and the definition of their position. Karl Marx also said that when their knowledge reached a certain pinnacle, the struggle would result in a change in the system, to uphold the position of those who were under the previous tension. As of today, the position of women within the Korean society still isn’t where it should be. Women are still considered as objects for their beauty but not intellectual beings that are capable just as any men. But there are more and more examples of women like Helen Kim appear and help Korean women define their position. The author truly believes in a possible future where Korean women are able to stand equally with any men. With the development of gender equality, like Korea having the first women president, that future is getting closer.





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Kwon, Insook. “Feminists Navigating the Shoals of Nationalism and Collaboration: The Post-Colonial Korean Debate over How to Remember Kim Hwallan.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 27.1 (2006): 39-66. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Hanscom, Christopher P., Walter K. Lew, and Youngju Ryu. Imperatives of culture: selected essays on Korean history, literature, and society from the Japanese colonial era. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i Press, 2013. Print.

Sweet Dream. Dir. Ju-nam Yang. By Dok-Boong Choi. Perf. Taek-won Jo, Han Kim, and Keum-ryong Lee. 1936. Film. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

The Handmaiden. Dir. Chan-wook Park. Perf. Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong. CJ Entertainment, 2016. Film.

“Park Chan-wook: ‘Be prepared to be criticized for your choices'” Interview by Thomas Page and Chan-wook Park. CNN Style18 Oct. 2016: n. pag. CNN Style. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Park, Chan-wook. “Park Chan-wook on blending genres and why revenge is meaningless.” Interview by Katie Rife. A.V. Club. Onion inc., 19 Oct. 2016. Web. 15 May 2017.

MARX, KARL. COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Place of publication not identified: CLYDESDALE PR LLC, 2017. Print.




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