DIR: Chan-wook Park • WRI: Seo-kyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park • PRO: Syd Lim, Chan-wook Park • DOP: Chung-hoon Chung • ED: Jae-Bum Kim, Sang-beom Kim • DES: Kathy Strachan • MUS: Yeong-wook Jo • CAST: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
At one point in Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, a character delivers the line “a story is all about the journey”. It’s a telling piece of dialogue as the joy of the Korean auteur’s latest is less the tale of betrayal in Japanese high society circa 1930 than the way it is presented. The opening scene sets up the film as something akin to an Asian Gosford Park or Downton Abbey. In Japan-occupied Korea, poor young village woman, Tamako (a fabulous Kim Tae-Ri), is chosen to be the handmaiden for wealthy coloniser and heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), a solitary figure ruled over by her sleazy, authoritarian uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong).
However, within ten minutes, Chan-Wook (best known to Westerners for directing Oldboy) pulls the first of many rugs out from under the viewer. Tamako, whose real name is Sook-Hee, is actually the daughter of a legendary thief and is pulling a con. Hired by a crook posing as a Count (Ha Jung-Woo), it’s her job to convince Lady Hideko into marrying her fellow con-artist. The plan is to throw the heiress into a mental institution post-wedding – with Sook-Hee and her accomplice splitting the bride’s riches.
What’s great fun about The Handmaiden, which is based upon a novel by Sarah Waters entitled Fingersmith, is how ill-disciplined it is despite being set in an environment known for being clinical and cold. Set in high society, based on story written by a British author and featuring a character obsessed with British culture – Chan-Wook’s film deliberately evokes a type of English cinema and literature defined by strict social mores and repressed sexuality. Thus, it gives The Handmaiden a subversive thrill when, with every twist, it becomes more insane and unruly with lesbian love affairs, a perverted book-club and an escape from a mental institution all being introduced into its plot. Plus, its feminist slant and positive view of sex are laudable in comparison to the works being drawn upon.
That said, the film certainly retains the lavish beauty of a glossy period drama. As with Chan-Wook’s previous feature Stoker, there are some unforgettable visuals present in The Handmaiden. The mansion in which the majority of the action takes place, so large that it takes ages to reach the house after entering its gates by car, is a wonderful creation. Suffering from blackouts, a scene where the viewer sees the exterior of the home pulsating on and off with light is particularly beautiful.
Although the film runs slightly too long after it shows its final twist, the script by Chan-Wook and frequent writing partner Seo-Kyeong Jeong (Thirst, Lady Vengeance) is notably tight – marked by a distinct lack of extraneous information. Everything mentioned in the drama, even down to the most minute details, pays off in some way as it continues.
At this stage in his career, it appears Chan-Wook can do no wrong. Nobody is making movies like the auteur – ones which are simultaneously stylish, erotic, inventive, disturbing, funny and violent. If one wasn’t swayed by Oldboy or his underrated English-language debut Stoker, The Handmaiden may be the one to convince audiences of this remarkable talent.
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The Handmaiden is released 14th April 2017