Korean film “the pickpocket”: plot under japanese occupation.

Park Chan-wook tells of the complex plan of a marriage swindler. He combines gothic elements with lesbian desire.

Getting along very well: Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her chambermaid Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) Photo: Koch

Pouring rain turns the street into mud. Undeterred, a unit of the Japanese army slams its boots into the mud of the street, disappears around the corner, and off-camera chases a group of Korean children away. Running away, the children nearly knock down a young woman, umbrella in hand, a toddler in her arms.

The young woman turns and walks toward two women waiting with a man under an awning, four more toddlers in their arms. The older of the two women under the canopy puts a hairpin decorated with a butterfly in the young woman’s hair and accepts the infant. The younger woman under the canopy cries. "It should have been me, I should have gone to the Japanese man’s house."

A farewell scene, in 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. It’s hard to imagine that the opening scene of Park Chan-wook’s latest film, "The Pickpocket," doesn’t call up memories of forced prostitution under Japanese rule for viewers in Asia.

But Sookee, the young woman, is taking leave for a different reason. The young woman grew up in a family of petty criminals. One of the sources of income is to raise orphans and sell them to the Japanese colonial masters. One day, a marriage swindler comes to her family and orders Sookee to go to the home of a Japanophile Korean.

Forgeries of rare books

Sookee is to act as a maid to the Korean’s Japanese niece, paving the way for the marriage swindler to get his hands on the niece’s fortune. The terrain has already been probed: Under the name "Count Fujiwara," the marriage swindler has been making forgeries of rare books from the uncle’s library for some time, which he sells to Japanese nobles.

A car takes Sookee out into the countryside to an estate that combines Japanese and English country house architecture, echoing the tradition of the Victorian gothic novel amid the real horror of Japanese rule over Korea. Outwardly, Sookee fits into her role as a maid, with only a few interior monologues keeping her involvement in the matchmaker’s scheme present.

In the proximity of the two women, a counterworld to patriarchal violence seems to emerge

The plan seems to work: When "Count Fujiwara" comes to visit the estate, the niece seems happy to escape her disgusting daily life, in which she is forced by her uncle to read pornographic literature to his guests.

Counterworld to patriarchal violence

Meanwhile, an intimacy is established between the women that complicates the plans of the marriage swindler. In the closeness of the two women, in their desire for each other, a counter-world appears to the patriarchal violence that surrounds them.

In "The Pickpocket," South Korean star director Park Chan-wook follows the three-part structure and broad strokes of the narrative of Sarah Waters’ novel "As Long as You Lie." Waters’ novel already interwove the plot about the marriage swindler and sexual decadence with a lesbian love story typical of Waters’ novels.

"The Pickpocket." Directed by Park Chan-wook. With Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, et al. South Korea 2016, 145 min.

By moving this plot from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, Park gives this story a twist that brings "The Pickpocket" closer to films about fascism from 1970s European cinema (think Bertolucci’s "The Great Mistake" or Pasolini’s notorious "The 120 Days of Sodom").

But Park doesn’t dwell on campy, beautiful imagery in "The Pickpocket," instead using the beguiling images between Victoranism and natural horror film as a counterpoint to the self-liberating explosion of desire that sweeps away 20th century Japanese-Korean contemporary history.