We here at Majestic Journal have a very fond affinity for beautiful visuals, and the world of moving images is no exception. Our “Dissects” feature offers a deeper dive into film – into what makes a scene memorable and what we can all learn from the masters of this craft – in collaboration with Costa, a Brooklyn-based photographer, film aficionado, and fellow student in the art form. Today, we take a look at Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” and his thoughtful and effective framework.
Released in 2016, “The Handmaiden” is set in Japanese-occupied Korea. The story focuses on a young, female thief extraordinaire named Sook-Hee and a “Count Fujiwara” who is nothing more than a conman. Together, they scheme to convince Lady Hideko, a young girl of great wealth and royalty, to marry the Count, so that he can inherit her riches after he eventually sends her to the madhouse. While the film boasts an extraordinarily rich plotline, the focus should be on the unbelievable visual work by director Park Chan-wook.
Renowned for his composition and color palettes, Park was dubbed “one of South Korea’s—and the world’s—premier cinematic voices” by the A.V. Club, “combining operatic themes of vengeance and destiny with outrageous twists and a sumptuous visual sensibility[...] Park’s films have always been difficult to put into one specific genre box.”
So what can visual artists learn from this film and Park’s unique visual storytelling ability? Here are some key sequences and frames that, even while standalone, seem like pieces of art.
Sook-Hee’s first encounter with Lady Hideko (5:55-6:13)
The shot above is probably the most famous of all from the film. It’s easy to see why. With a dynamic, but gradual zoom into Sook-Hee’s face, the viewer is gripped and drawn into her eye— the one point of focus.
But this sequence is more than just that shot. Park uses a flat, wide-angle to the frames here, often positioning them on the outside of the house looking in through a window.
The symbolism through framing alone here is paramount. This sequence is Sook-Hee’s first exposure to this new world; a world she does not yet fit in, but must adapt to; A world she is not yet a part of, but is curious enough to peek into. While the viewer looks through windows to follow Sook-Hee, Sook-Hee peeks through the windows and cracks at what is about to become her new life.
Tension Builds Between Hideko and Sook-Hee (22:22)
This shot is simple, yet extremely complex. The composition is not complicated; a tub in the middle of the screen, the rim nearly level with the halfway point of the screen’s width.
But Park does the little things so well. Jars of soaps are slightly off-center, providing depth and drawing in the eye. The open door on the right of the screen threatens to pull the viewer’s attention away, but is countered by the towel on the far left of the screen, a subject that is much closer to the action, but far less intriguing. By offsetting the distraction of the open door (which is included to provide depth and scale to the photo) with a bland object on the opposite side of the frame, closer to the lens, Park centers the viewer’s eye on the action. This simple balance refocuses the viewer on Sook-Hee and Hideko in an important sequence for the plot and tension to build.
Park seems to be constantly seeking balance in a world with imperfections, and this short clip is a perfect example. We are set with a wide, flat angle and the main action directly in the center of the film—in this case, the dinner table, in line with many of the frames in this film. This shot would be otherwise symmetrical, if not for Count Fujiwara standing, his chair thrown to the floor behind him. What’s so remarkable about this clip is that it is the imbalance that actually enhances the symmetry and nudges the viewer to the necessary action: Count Fujiwara’s phony passion for Hideko.
A Pregnant Pause (26:03)
As Sook-Hee and Count Fujiwara await a servant to disappear so they can continue their scheming in private, a pregnant pause arises as both the characters and viewer wait for the servant to leave. In this frame, Park wants to remind the viewer that these two are plotting against Hideko, regardless of any romance between Hideko and Sook-Hee.
The way in which Park gently reminds the viewer of their thievery is magnificent. Through an orienting line (illustrated here in pink), Park directs the viewer’s eye to focus on the tension from the servant’s presence, just as Fujiwara and Sook-Hee do the same. In this case, the set-up of the characters from left to right, left in the foreground, right in the background, is highly intentional. This layout of figures in the frame allows Park to leverage a viewer’s natural propensity of observation from left to right (similar to reading a page), to gently nudge the viewer to focus on the tension of the maid outside, centering them with the characters and their dilemma in the situation.
A Painting Painting a Painting (33:51)
In this frame, Sook-Hee and Hideko wait for Fujiwara to give Hideko a painting lesson. For a few seconds, they are completely still. It’s a subversive frame for one reason: The shot seems much like the painting of an impressionist from the mid-to-late 19th century, only the figures in this painting are also painting.
Yin and Yang (1:52:22)
As the story crescendos, we see a perfect encapsulation of what Park’s overarching visual theme has been throughout the film: balance in chaos.
The library, prior to this point only seen in the film with a flat, symmetrical and perfectly horizontal wide frame, is now tilted on its head. Books are strewn across the floor, Sook-Hee’s shoes are off, the viewer now looks through a tilted frame, and there is only chaos in the once-immaculate chamber. However, upon a closer look, we see that, even in this chaos, there is balance. Even with the strange angle of the frame, the table is still almost exactly centered in the middle of the frame. Two piles of books surround it, one balancing the other. And in the eye of this Hurricane? Sook-Hee.
To be frank, there are simply too many beautiful frames within this movie to pore over endlessly. That being said, there are still two major visual takeaways to be gleaned from just these few sequences. However, even from these few sequences, there are still two major takeaways for any visual artist.
For starters, Park is a master of using a symmetrical, still frame to create a complementary imbalance through character or prop placement. You don’t always have to go for perfect symmetry: Look to enliven your image by embracing the characters in the frame who don’t adhere to your desired symmetry.
Additionally, think about the viewer’s eyeline. Too often photographers and visual artists are focused on all the details and intricacies, but ignore how to naturally orient the viewer to what they really want to highlight. Park does this frequently in the film, in which characters are often used as mere props to build the story arch.
In summary, “The Handmaiden” is a work of art touching complex themes through the use of unparalleled visuals. The film deserved all the accolades it received upon release and still stands tall amongst any films that have been released since then. Park’s use of simplicity, imbalance, and wide, flat angles are remarkable. Visual artists are always compelled to find ways to improve their craft, and frankly, this film could be a great way to do so.
Written by Costa
Edited by Jaclyn Siu