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'Handmaiden' vies for Cannes prize

Director Park Chan-wook, a two-time Cannes winner, among four Korean directors showing at the international film fest

With director Park Chan-wook’s latest mystery-thriller “The Handmaiden” confirmed to screen in the Cannes Film Festival’s competition category, speculation abounds on whether the film will be able to bring a long-awaited win this year.

The invitation, unveiled Thursday, was welcome news to the local film industry, as it marks the first time in four years that a Korean film has entered Cannes’ competition category. Hong Sang-soo’s “In Another Country” and Im Sang-soo’s “The Taste of Money” last competed at the 2012 festival. 

Park has been recognized twice before at Cannes, with mystery-thriller “Oldboy” winning the Grand Prix in 2004 and horror film “Thirst” nabbing the Jury Prize in 2009. 

Ha Jung-woo (left) and Kim Tae-ri in “The Handmaiden” (CJ E&M)
Ha Jung-woo (left) and Kim Tae-ri in “The Handmaiden” (CJ E&M)

“The Handmaiden” tells the story of an heiress and her household in 1930s Korea during the Japanese colonial period. It is anticipated to be as dark and ominous as Park’s previous works, featuring explicit nudity and same-sex tension. It stars big-name actors Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee as well as up-and-coming actress Kim Tae-ri in the role of the maid. The film is set for local release in early June after the Cannes festival.

This year’s Cannes lineup in the competition section features some of the most recognized directors in the international film scene, leading to charges that Cannes has favored established names over new talent -- allegations the festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux strongly denied, according to Hollywood Reporter.  

Park’s film is up against 19 other works in the competition category. Some standouts include “The Unknown Girl” by Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, brothers who have twice before nabbed the Palme d’Or, American actor-director Sean Penn’s “The Last Face” and “It’s Only the End of the World” by Canadian director Xavier Dolan.

Because the winners for the international film festival’s top prizes, which include the Palme d’Or and Grand Prix, are kept strictly secret until the last moment, it’s nearly impossible to guess what the outcome will be, said Yoon In-ho, an official at CJ E&M, the company in charge of distributing Park’s film.

Korean films are increasingly gaining a strong footing in international cinema, attracting large investments from global film companies as well as achieving critical recognition for showing the chaos that lurks underneath the society’s traditional hierarchical structure and rapid urban development. However, the coveted Palme d’Or prize has so far eluded Korean directors who have become regular guests at major international film events.

Only one other film from Asia is featured in the competition category -- Filipino director Brillante Medoza’s “Ma’ Rosa.” Meanwhile, two Romanian films have been selected this year -- Cristian Mungju’s “Baccalaureat” and Cristi Puiu’s “Sieranevada.”

Italy and Mexico, countries whose films are usually regular fixtures at Cannes, were absent from the competition section this year. Only one film from Latin America -- “Aquarius” by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho -- was invited. 

Hwang Jung-min in “Gokseong” (20th Century Fox International Productions)
Hwang Jung-min in “Gokseong” (20th Century Fox International Productions)

Two other Korean films will be screened in the noncompetition categories at Cannes this year. Director Na Hong-jin’s “Gokseong,” a thriller involving a serial murder case and featuring Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee and Kwak Do-won, has been selected for the Outside Competition category. With the invitation, all three of Na’s feature-length films -- which include “The Chaser” (2008) and “The Yellow Sea” (2011) -- will have been screened at Cannes.

Yeon Sang-ho’s “The Train to Busan” will be featured in the Midnight Screenings category, which highlights commercial films. The film, starring Gong Yoo, Choi Woo-sik, Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yoo-mi, follows passengers on a train headed from Seoul to Busan who struggle to survive a virus outbreak that has overtaken the country.

In the Cinefondation Selection, a competition category for short films, director Park Young-ju’s “1 Kilogram,” a 29-minute short about a woman who loses her son and finds hope in a group of fellow mothers, has been invited. The film is an adaptation of Korean novelist Pyun Hye-young’s short story “1 Kilogram of Seafood.” Park, 31, is currently a film student at the Korea National University of Arts.

The upcoming 69th Cannes Film Festival will take place May 11-22.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)

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