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Shadow Play: Park Chan-Wook’s “The Little Drummer Girl”

The South Korean director forges further into English-language filmmaking with a miniseries adaptation of John le Carré’s 1983 spy novel.
That South Korean director Park Chan-wook is interested in revenge should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with his work. After the box-office smash Joint Security Area (2000), he proceeded to make what is now collectively known as “The Vengeance Trilogy": Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002); Oldboy (2003), the most well-known entry; and Lady Vengeance (2005). For a while, though, it would seem to explain why The Little Drummer Girl (1983), of all of John le Carré’s spy novels—and not, say, A Perfect Spy, the masterpiece that directly followed it—captured Park’s long-standing interest, eventually culminating in a lavish, six-episode mini-series.
Set in 1979 against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the series opens with a terrorist attack on a Jewish diplomatic residence in Bad Godesberg, West Germany. In a sinuous, ticking-clock set-piece, a leather briefcase—seen in the opening shot, as well at the close of the title sequence—is being transported from an unknown location. Glances are exchanged, the briefcase changes hands. Then, the inevitable explosion, which we later learn takes the life of an 8-year-old Jewish boy. It’s this death that sets the gears of the first episode into motion, as we’re introduced to an Israeli spymaster Martin “Marty” Kurtz (Michael Shannon) and his team of intelligence agents. The attack, it turns out, was orchestrated by a Palestinian named Salim (code name: Michel, played by Amir Khoury), whose brother Khalil is someone Kurtz has been tracking for some time. And it's this information that leads Shannon’s veteran agent (and the show) down into something of a heart of darkness.
Given the novel’s incendiary political context—"The book feels as if it were dashed off with the zealous haste of a reporter filing for a deadline," wrote James Wolcott in his contemporaneous appraisal in The New York Review of Books—it’s inevitable that retributive action plays a major part in the proceedings. Scars from various conflicts and tortures run across the bodies of its various players, and the monumental locations they traverse are similarly marred. A scene at Munich’s Olympic Village (actually shot in the brutalist Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate in Camden) highlights a plaque commemorating the 1972 Munich massacre, in which 11 Israeli Olympic team members and a West German police officer were killed by the terrorist group Black September. And the script, courtesy of Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson, takes pains to draw out the vengeful toll of the greater Pyrrhic struggle, in which individual catharsis is often sacrificed in favor of the the long game. But it's precisely this perpetual, protracted state of conflict and divided identity that Park, who has from birth lived on the Korean peninsula, identifies as his core understanding of the work. Indeed, The Little Drummer Girl isn’t really what one would call a revenge saga, something that becomes abundantly clear once its principal player, Charmain “Charlie” Ross (Florence Pugh), comes into focus.
An English actress in her early twenties, Charlie seems to have no family, no allegiances, and no convictions. As played by Pugh, she’s sassy and sarcastic, a voluble presence who doesn’t lack for fire or energy. But you also get the sense that despite her professed leftist (and anti-Zionist) politics, she's not deeply invested in the ideologies or beliefs that run beneath; that she's more interested in the challenge of any given part; and that given her bohemian social circles, this was simply the one that presented itself first. That she's seen playing the title role in a production of Saint Joan is but one of the script’s knowing ironies. Though Pugh first broke out in 2016 with William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, which she followed with a TV role in King Lear (2018), the Shakespeare play referenced here is As You Like It, with Charlie (whose name is pointedly called out as being that of a man) as a kind of Rosalind figure. (“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”) But her unformed, malleable, somewhat capricious qualities are precisely what make her the tantalizing center of le Carré’s story—for it soon becomes clear that, even more so than revenge, its subject is a very state of being.
Park’s mini-series, for which le Carré himself serves as an executive producer, isn’t the first treatment of The Little Drummer Girl, which was adapted a year after publication into a now-forgotten version starring no less than Diane Keaton. Concerned as the story is with the nature of performance, it’s not difficult to see why one would see it as befitting a cinematic vision. (Though this new iteration was at least partially spurred by the success of The Night Manager, another le Carré adaptation produced by the Cornwell brothers.) When we first see Pugh, she’s auditioning for Kurtz himself, though she doesn’t know it at the time. Apart from shifting between the actual line readings and the lo-fi, black-and-white textures of a video recording, the scene is intercut with, one is to presume, a real memory from which Charlie is pulling the emotions she's expressing. The very notion of performance as something drawn from a reservoir of personal experience is something that Park, utilizing a similar visual strategy, will return to throughout the series.
Of course, espionage films are all “about” acting. But The Little Drummer Girl goes deeper, further than most, taking Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…” to an exceedingly literal degree. The dialogue at times leans too far into theatrical emphasis, with self-consciously florid lines about “building a fiction” and entering the “theater of the real,” but there remains something potent about Park's vision, which makes no pretense to naturalism and frequently lays bare to its table-setting artifice. After Charlie heads to Greece under the pretense of an acting retreat, she’s slowly taken in by Alexander Skarsgård’s mystery-man, Gadi Becker, an operative working for Kurtz—though to what end it’s not initially clear. He whisks her away from the steely-blue beaches of Naxos to the streets of Athens, where against the backdrop of the Acropolis, the pair engage in literal shadow-play, allowing their silhouettes to dance against the imposing ancient ruins. It is an image that will define their relationship from that point forward.
With a disorienting swiftness, Charlie's world becomes one of bold primary colors, lush costumes, and richly appointed, decorous spaces, all lent an artificial crispness by Kim Woo-hyung’s limpid cinematography. There are pains to period-specific verisimilitude, certainly, but the lingering impression is that of a dollhouse—fitting for a work that deals explicitly with false faces, and for a director who excels in a kind of all-knowing, magisterial manipulation. When Charlie finally meets Kurtz at the end of the first episode, the pieces begin to fall into place. “I am the producer, writer, and director of our little show,” he tells her. “And I would like to talk to you about your part.” We have been watching an audition all along.
The role in question is that of a revolutionary seduced by Salim (whom Kurtz and his agents have in their custody) in both mind and heart. Charlie’s documented presence at a number of meetings held by the PLO, and thus plausibly linked to the suave Palestinian revolutionary, makes her ideal for the part. Not to mention her thespian talents and self-professed "sponge-like" aptitude for retaining information. It’s the "role of a lifetime" Kurtz tells her. And though she at first shrugs off the invitation as the deranged enticements of "an experimental theater company," she accepts, drawn by something. As the title suggests, the nature of that something—or perhaps the lack thereof—is the guiding question of her journey. Whether by proximity as her mentor and scene partner, Becker, who is to "play" Salim and thus stand in as her object of affection, would seem to provide the answer—for a time at least.
An audition, though, must be followed by a rehearsal and performance, which episodes two and three deliver on. Apart from pointing out le Carré’s customary Hitchcockian cameo in the second episode, it’s enough to say that this stretch of the series cements Kurtz as a kind of Wellesian figure moving his actors like chess-pieces from afar. And though Charlie starts out as a mere pawn, her potential is unmatched—for, as Kurtz tells her, she is uniquely positioned to get closer to Khalil than anyone before her. It’s not much of a stretch to intuit that she eventually does. What is less clear is on whose side she will be when she gets there.
As set out by its first half, The Little Drummer Girl, with its focus on embedded fictions, skin-shedding, and role-playing, would seem to lend itself to the kind of enterprise found in a film by Jacques Rivette—that is, a work embodying what B. Kite, in his supremely erudite essay on Out 1 (1971), a series for television with its own dueling theater troupes, describes as the French director’s notion of "fundamentally dispersed and performative being, an idea that coded patterns and rituals can potentially be inhabited in emotional fullness while still allowing some degree of independence for both the role and the performer." And there is some of that. The mentor-agent interplay between Becker and Charlie often involves enacting the desired fiction as a kind of rehearsal, in order that such experience may be drawn on later, under duress. "Terror is theater," goes one of Salim's propagandist speeches. "And sometimes, the world has to be lifted up by its neck before it will listen to justice." At its best, the series conceives of theater itself as a kind of terror; it risks madness, as a great performance ought to. The close of episode three sees Charlie now returned to her London flat, seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, having emerged from the immediate danger of her first mission, but still trapped within the maze of mirrors that she's walked into. In that moment, one might wonder if, as in the dazzling climax of Welles' The Lady of Shanghai (1947), only a bullet can free her.
Whether because of a failure of nerve, or just run-of-the-mill disinterest, the series ultimately pulls back from this charged thread. As Charlie is drawn deeper into Palestinian circles in the fourth and fifth episodes—she’s sent to a training camp in Beirut, where she meets Fatmeh (Lubna Azabal), Salim’s sister, and rises in the revolutionary ranks—her romance with Becker emerges as the series’ core. Rather than allow her tenuous allegiances and ideological underpinnings to be buffeted about unpredictably, the script repeatedly centers Charlie with flashbacks to a pivotal night between her and Becker, of which we see a sequence of tasteful lovemaking (with a single De Palma-esque flourish of lips opening up into an eye), and a post-coital bit of get-to-know-the-real-you bonding (accompanied by the actors' absurd, flesh-covering contortions with a blanket), with the remaining exchanges between the two parceled out in flashback over the next hour. This underlying sentimental streak might seem a departure for Park were it not for The Handmaiden (2016). At a hefty 145 minutes, that film snaked through the gardens and corridors of its labyrinthine plot with a kind of ominous languor. And though its wending paths were set up with numerous, incident-driven reversals of fortune, there was never the sense of uncertainty regarding the various (un)maskings; its salacious manipulations were always grounded by an essential, unshakable longing.
Seen in this light, The Little Drummer Girl's retreat from the morass of performance/identity to the solidity of romance is less surprising, but still dispiriting, for despite Skarsgård and Pugh's ample abilities, the screen only rarely smolders, the duo's passion muted by Park's almost entomological eye. Apart from a brief scene in the fifth episode that carries the sting of potential betrayal, their relationship is mostly absent of erotic charge—a potentially minor issue were the show not supposedly borne along by the very same. Amidst the neon haloes and rain-spattered windows of her return to continental Europe, Charlie remarks: "I've only been gone a month, and yet it feels like I've never been here in my life." The line ought to demonstrate a marked de-centering of identity. But given the screenwriting contortions required to accommodate a "well-paced" six-episode structure, with her entire stay at the Palestinian training camp compressed into a scant half-hour or so of screen time, it hardly feels like she ever left. The impression of displaced or divided identity is superficial. Even as the series converges towards the Palestinians' climactic attempt to bomb the Polytechnic of Greater London, where an Israeli professor is to speak on the anniversary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, Park continues to intercut Charlie's manipulations with memories of rehearsed instruction from Becker, undermining the "constant improvisation" promised by her role, as well as dispelling the ambiguity of her supposed loyalties at that point.
If Park often seems less interested in teasing out the complexities of performance, though, he at least attempts to dynamically explore the globe-trotting spaces of le Carré's story. An unoccupied roadside location near Karlovy Vary called The Trans Motel—a brief stop-over on the initial mission—was reportedly Park’s favorite, with the giant divider of the room seeming to bear down on the pivotal conversation within. And such off-kilter compositions abound, with Park's eye often preoccupied with inscribing the show's various spaces in the mind. In Becker's apartment building, filmed in the modernist housing project of Bevin Court, the camera circles about the striking lines of the central staircase (designed by Berthold Lubetkin of the Tecton Group), its languid movements acting as an external analogue of sorts to the characters' labyrinthine navigations of identity. Such interest is unsurprising for Park, whose films have always been keenly attuned to architecture, the geometries of space that define the action and behavior within: think of the rectilinear corridor in which Oldboy's now-famous long-take butchery plays out; the sepulchral, cobwebbed bowels of the mansion in the gothic-thriller Stoker (2013); or the eastern and western wings of the house in The Handmaiden, not to mention its cold, cavernous basement.
Like Luca Guadagnino, whose recent Suspiria occupies a similar time period and retains a similar architectural bent, though with its focus racked to a different political flashpoint, Park is a consummate stylist, which pays dividends when he’s free to orchestrate shadowy procedural set-pieces; less so when asked to limn minute shifts in character or emotion. He can pull out a striking frame when moved to, such as when he switches to an overhead shot of his two protagonists descending parallel flights of stairs, which is elegantly done, if blunt in its import. But the seductive pull required to make the story's closing stretch come alive is mostly absent, despite a charged scenario of doubles, forced betrayals, and misdirected longing, as well as an ever-ready reference to Hitchcock's Vertigo, with a set of emerald drapes and more than a hint of ghostly light. Still, there's a brief, two-minute sequence before the coda that serves as a firm rejoinder to those who would accuse the show of a primarily Zionist perspective—the script is fairly balanced in that regard. After Charlie herself is seen reeling from a fresh trauma, the show observes, with horrifying swiftness, the rippling retributive fallout of Charlie's intelligence efforts against the Palestinians—Fincher-esque, almost, in the way data and facts flow through the violent fallout. While not the usual bloodletting of Park's finales, it's a decided shock to the system, one that throws the title's full import into sharp relief.
Where the show eventually leaves us is a point of marked uncertainty—which is by design. Pugh's Charlie, now phantom-like, paler than we've ever seen her before, once again comes face to face with Skarsgård's agent. She's caught him in a rare moment of unguarded domesticity, and by trained instinct he pulls out his gun. The shadows have receded, but the memories remain. They are in an alleyway that runs adjacent to a less-than-lavish West German house. Removed from the plush digs of his former intelligence agent outpost, the space almost seems like a backstage to some banal domestic drama. He opens the door as an invitation: The play is over, and it's time to begin anew.

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