Women have not historically fared well in noir. Throughout crime fiction, male authors have built upon and proliferated misogynist beliefs about the moral character of women—that they’re deceitful, manipulative, or promiscuous (you can count on one hand the number of times a woman in a Raymond Chandler novel doesn’t turn out to be a scheming villain). Often, this is a result of being “damaged” in some way, as if women are to be punished and scorned for not being able to cope with trauma gained from patriarchal suffering.
The femme fatale has a history of using sex as a means of deception, a contradictory assessment of female autonomy; their greatest asset is a power gained and defined by patriarchal oppression and violence. It’s also why women in crime fiction often are portrayed as queer; as from a masculine perspective, being gay is only another form of deceptive subversion from a heteronormative regime.
It would be disingenuous to argue that Korean auteur Park Chan-wook upends every archetype and trope of the noir and crime thriller genres (often he’ll just make them feel electric), but as his career has continued, women in his films have taken a bolder, stronger focus. In his appropriately twisty fashion, Park’s female characters have engaged fully with the trope of the deceptive femme, and instead of repeating the footsteps of other women in noir, have used deception as a means of empowerment. What’s more, Park often aligns our perspectives with them rather than the men who wield more agency and authority. Park’s women are often aware of the pejorative tropes that contextualize their actions; these are characters older authors of the same genre would grant as villains or foils, but in Park’s work they are heroines. The result is multiple powerful narratives about actualizing liberty and identity from within restrictive structures.
Decision to Leave, Park’s new simmering and slick procedural, unpacks the femme fatale trope from an uncharacteristically male perspective for the Korean director. A burnt-out detective becomes transfixed by a Chinese woman as doubts arise about her husband’s suicide. As he becomes fascinated with the suspect Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the married detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is always aware of what kind of story he’s slipping into.
This only becomes the case, however, once he buys into her status as a femme fatale, as he earlier identified the archetype by telling a colleague, “If she is young, beautiful, and foreign, does that make her a murder suspect?” What’s noteworthy is the reference to Seo-rae’s Chinese nationality; it means she often has to translate imagery and feelings in a way that enforces not only distance (perhaps a reflection of Park Chan-wook’s feelings directing his English-language projects through an interpreter?) but also a xenophobic suspicion. No act of translation is neutral, and to Hae-jun, so much can be hidden behind it.
But engaging with a romantic dynamic as “classic” as that between detective and suspect is too enticing for two people who feel out of step with a modern world. They may depend on flashy, streamlined tech to aid every facet of their lives, but the performance of cat-and-mouse that draws them closer is one they adopt willingly from the heart. Is it entirely sincere, or is it pure deception? Is she hiding anything at all, or does she just want to play into Hae-jun’s suspicions that she is? Both possibilities exist concurrently as they orbit closer around each other, aware of the doomed nature of their emotional affair. The deception is not just relegated to one deceiving the other, but of deceiving the self.
The rich contradictions of Seo-rae’s outsider character feel in sync with Park’s other fully-realized women, the first of them appearing in Lady Vengeance. Before the closing film in his unofficial “Vengeance Trilogy,” women had largely featured in supporting roles, either as an undefined investigator in Joint Security Area, or as motivations for male characters to seek revenge. But Lady Vengeance came out swinging with a female protagonist who performs layers of deceptions that conceal a complex, burning heart.
Lee Geum-ja (Lee Yeong-ae) has been imprisoned for 13 years after she kidnapped and murdered a young child. As soon as she leaves, she encounters a preacher and choir who rallied for her soul behind bars, following her as she transformed into a “kind-hearted” model prisoner, seemingly reformed, ready to live a kind, religious life. When offered a plate of tofu by the preacher, a tradition that symbolizes a promise to “live white and never sin again,” she immediately upends it. Having been released from jail, she has no further requirement nor desire to perform the guise of sinlessness—she’s gotten what she wanted.
In contrast to Oldboy, where our aggrieved revenge-seeker Oh Dae-su spent his lengthy captivity fueled by uncompromised, burning anger, Geum-ja’s performed rehabilitation seems more coded with expectations of female atonement; after transgressing, they must return to being meek, penitent, even submissive to moral order (designed by men) if they want to be embraced by society.
It could be argued that the difference between Geum-ja and Dae-su is how social their captivity was; Dae-su was kidnapped and kept in solitary confinement, whereas Geum-ja’s imprisonment was a very public affair, her prison populated with other watchful eyes. But even this affirms the idea of performance in captivity: Dae-su was unobserved by society, and had no one to build relationships with; whereas Geum-ja had to gauge and adapt to the expectations not just of people in the outside world like the preacher, but her fellow prisoners—a form of performed rehabilitation, where she possibly felt the same burning rage that we see Dae-su externalize with no watchful eye over him. But if penitence is what’s expected of you, why not play it to your advantage?
If this deception put power in Geum-ja’s hands, the one preceding it did not. It’s revealed Geum-ja didn’t commit the murders, and was covering for her teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), who took her in after she fell pregnant, sexually abused her, and blackmailed her into covering for one of his serial child murders. Baek identified Geum-ja’s daughter as her weakness, and used her to force Geum-ja into facilitating and continuing his crimes. This is not a deceit to reach female actualization; this is one of male abuse, one that makes vulnerable women understand the pressure points that can be exploited to make them perform exactly as abusers want.
Park’s female characters have engaged fully with the trope of the deceptive femme, and instead of repeating the footsteps of other women in noir, have used deception as a means of empowerment.
But performing a patriarchal plot doesn’t restrict or inhibit women from enacting their own forms of subversion. Just as Geum-ja spent her captivity planning her revenge and cultivating a public image, the noble and servile protagonists of The Handmaiden demonstrated how playing in line with the deceitful machinations of abusive men can, in itself, be executed performatively. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a con man entrusts a young woman to become the handmaiden to a wealthy heiress, as part of a scheme for the con man to elope with her, commit her to an asylum, and make off with her fortune. What he doesn’t predict is that the heiress and handmaiden will fall for each other, but neither does the handmaiden predict that the heiress is in on the plot and will commit her to the asylum. It’s a gloriously twisty narrative, filled with doubling-backs and perspective shifts—and a complicated layering of deceptions.
But it’s impossible to separate these deceptions from the sexual dynamics at play. The con man, adopting the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Hung-woo) has an unwarranted amount of faith in his powers of sexual persuasion, even when his seductions are purely a performance. Fujiwara’s arrogance ties closely with Umberto Eco’s concept of machismo, one of his 14 qualifiers of fascism, which he defines as an aggrandized, performed sense of masculinity designed to dominate any perceived sexual threat. It’s this grossly inflated ego and insistence of heteronormativity that makes him blind to the one deception that unravels all others.
Queerness is one of the ultimate threats to machismo, and even though Fujiwara did not expect the heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to fall in love, he still orchestrated for them to be pitted against each other. The erotic charge between them heightens to the point where the two women sleep together—their sexual intimacy initially accessed through a heterosexual performance, with Sook-hee roleplaying as the Count to prepare Hideko for their wedding night. Once discovered, queerness becomes a way to undo the misogynist manipulations enforced not only by the Count, but the years of abuse orchestrated by Hideko’s guardian, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong).
The Handmaiden’s setting is crucial to understanding the significance of this act of queer rebellion. During the Japanese occupation, ianfu, or comfort women, were women forced into sexual slavery for the benefit of the Imperial Army, usually from occupied countries like Korea. The trafficking, abuse, and forced sterilization of women and minors remains a highly charged political issue, especially with high-profile figures refusing to acknowledge the crimes’ severity. Whole theses have been written about the intersection of queerness and colonized bodies in Park’s masterpiece, but it’s important to note how, at a time when women’s bodies were commodified, abused, and devalued by imperial powers, the impetus to dismantle the many-layered deceptions that make up The Handmaiden is found in an act of queer women using their own bodies for mutual pleasure. It’s a form of shared actualization that cuts straight through the machismo of Fujiwara’s plots.
It’s notable that Hideko and Sook-hee’s own deceptions involve playing out Fujiwara’s nearly to completion, making him think they’re carrying out his commands unquestioningly, that he has the upper hand, when in fact they’re just indulging his false confidence until the last moment. But even as Hideko and Sook-hee go through the motions of Fujiwara’s con, they’re exercising more power thanks to their sapphic communion, which has rendered them less isolated and vulnerable to the machinations of abusive men. Perhaps this is a definer of female deception in Park’s work, as just like Geum-ja’s entrustment of a fellow ex-con and victim of Mr. Baek to get her revenge, The Handmaiden sees that female vengeance or liberty can’t be achieved, or shared, alone.
In the end, Sook-hee disguises as a man to escape with Hideko to Shanghai, and her men’s suit and fake mustache add a possible trans grace note to the sweeping romance. It feels like Park is commenting on the misogyny intrinsic to noir; is there any way for female characters to “win” against injustice and imprisonment without deception? Just like Decision to Leave, the presence and watchful eyes of men seem to zealously define the avenues women can have to an empowered social identity, regardless of how romantic or abusive those men are. There’s a bittersweet quality for The Handmaiden’s two lovers as they sail away from harm; they still live in a punishing world for queer people, and likely the rest of their lives will involve deception just so they can feel fulfilled.
But any story about deception needs the moment where the performing facade drops away. Lady Vengeance stretches this moment across its final third, with an elongated revenge sequence that feels both coldly sterile and bristling with humanity. After Geum-ja discovers Mr. Baek’s other child victims, she assembles the bereaved families and together, they each partake in Mr. Baek’s murder, everyone sharing equal blame and culpability. There is no trickery involved in Geum-ja’s vengeance—it is blunt, drawn-out, and deadening.
Afterwards, she tells her daughter to live purely, like tofu—before shoving her face into the white frosting of a cake. The promise to live a pure and sinless life now feels hollow and unreachable, the emotional toll of her existence, delayed several times by deception and revenge, catches up and submerges her. It’s a conclusion that seems in harmony with Decision to Leave, as the mechanisms of mystery plotting start to close in on Seo-rae, she is less concerned with living through the consequences of criminal actions, and more concerned with living at all. An imprisoning world offers no chance for joy, and even though there was something honest and potent in her love for Hae-jun, just as there was with Geum-ja’s orchestrated revenge, it is simply not enough to reject or undo the quality of life that society insists we should enjoy.
Park argues that maybe the structures of noir and crime films are too punishing for women to ever truly find fulfillment, especially if they’re queer, victims of abuse, or feel alienated from their contemporary society. There is no plan of action that can undo our guilt, there is no deception that can remove us from our trauma, and there is no performance that can make us a different person.
And yet Park’s women make the choice to deceive their way out of hardship every time. Because when you find yourself in that story, what other choice do you have?
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