UK Release Date: 14th April 2017
Runtime: 145 minutes
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri
Synopsis: A conman mounts an ambitious plan to seduce a wealthy, naive woman and dupe her out of her fortune, with the help of an accomplice posing as her handmaiden.
Korean auteur Park Chan-wook has never been a filmmaker who shies away from controversial material. Oldboy remains notorious for its violence against both humans and octopuses, as well as its sucker punch final twist, and his English language debut Stoker was a dark, subversive tale. He’s back in his native tongue for The Handmaiden, which is an edgy, sexy adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, transposed from Victorian Britain to Japan-occupied Korea in the early part of the 20th century. It’s a stunning, seductive piece of work that wrong-foots its audience at every turn.
Charismatic confidence trickster “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) recruits pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to aid him in fleecing wealthy orphan Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in the care of her strange uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Fujiwara plans to convince Hideko to elope and marry him, before having her committed to an insane asylum so that he can enjoy her inheritance. Sook-hee begins to have doubts about the plan, however, when she forms a romantic relationship with the sheltered, naive Hideko.
The Handmaiden is in many ways the epitome of what makes Park such a compelling director. The story is airport pulp in many ways, with page-turning momentum and some outrageous narrative twists. With that in mind, the film could easily have felt like exploitation trash, particularly as a result of the deliberately ripe dialogue – female genitals are described as “spellbindingly beautiful” in the midst of a sex scene. However, much like David Fincher with Gone Girl, Park coats the film in artful visual gloss. While Fincher dealt in cold blues and greys, Park creates something a great deal warmer with the deep browns and reds of Kouzuki’s opulent home.
The unholy union of pulpy material and visual artistry gives The Handmaiden a feel of real class. At almost two and a half hours long, it could’ve easily become an indulgent, weighty film, but its entire running time is propulsive and energetic. Helped by its clearly delineated three-part structure, nabbed from the pages of the novel, the story is able to constantly reframe and reshape itself in front of the eyes of the audience. Park takes great pleasure in throwing twists at the audience and there’s a delightfully incongruous feeling to the machinations of a conman thriller playing out in a lavish period setting.
Park also draws terrific performances from his cast, especially central duo Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee. Their relationship is intense and believable, particularly given its slow build to a sexual crescendo that is subsequently challenged by the deception at play. Kim Tae-ri is excellent as a girl forced to grow up too fast in a criminal world and enjoying the rare situation in which she appears to be in a position of power when it comes to knowledge of the world. Kim Min-hee, too, does expert work as the naive Hideko. One scene in which Sook-hee uses a thimble to file down Hideko’s aching tooth is unexpectedly one of the most sexually charged sequences of any romance film in recent memory.
The true joy of The Handmaiden is how nothing is at it seems. It’s a film that gleefully reverses the narrative more than once on the way to its finale and always keeps the audience guessing. Sex looms large over everything that happens, but voyeurism and the eagerness to watch is also something that runs throughout the narrative. The house is full of gaps to peer through and sliding partitions, through which characters peer and pry. Like them, there’s always a sense that our view is obscured and we’re not quite getting the full story. Park Chan-wook is not a filmmaker who deals in absolutes and The Handmaiden is another masterful example of how well he can illuminate shades of grey.
Pop or Poop?
Park Chan-wook has produced another slick, sumptuous slice of seductive cinema with The Handmaiden, which is an epic tale of romance and deceit with twist upon twist keeping its narrative moving. The central performances are remarkable and Park turns the setting into a living, breathing character on the way to a surprising finale. To echo the words of the film, The Handmaiden is certainly spellbindingly beautiful.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.