THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)
2h 25m (2h 48m Director's cut)
Smart, sexy, stylish and surprising, Director Park heads back to the time of Japanese occupation to deliver this masterpiece on a con-job gone awry
Fittingly known as Mr. Vengeance after the international phenomena of his 2000s trilogy of revenge tales, Park Chan-wook might need another moniker after creating an offering of matching brilliance.
Rather than the rougher streets of Seoul, Director Park takes us to some of the more affluent pockets of Japan’s occupation of Korea, as petty criminals seek their defining paydays by infiltrating the jewellery rattling circles of high society.
Inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, the period shifts from Victorian Britain to Korean’s Japanese colonial rule, and mixes in Park’s ability to stylise every frame as the story twists and turns through our fingers.
A con man masquerading as a ‘Count Fujiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo) has hatched a plan to seduce Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), marry her and commit her to a mental asylum before walking away with her vast inheritance.
To achieve this ruse, he hires pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to be Hideko's maid and operate as his advocate to encourage Lady Hideko into the marriage.
Lady Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a Korean who helped the Japanese take over his country for a gold mine. His riches now fuel an obsession for rare books, with Hideko operating as reader for gatherings of guests.
On Sook-hee’s arrival, Hideko and her new maid form a bond which quickly escalates into a romance as the two spend the night together, complicating the con-job for Sook-hee as her emotions grow.
What develops from there is better explored first-hand, but the film, as you might expect from Director Park, twists, evolves and double-backs to shows its many sleight of hand tricks.
Almost every shot is as decadently created as the riches on screen, with Director Park elevating his reputation with every moving frame. It is needless to compare The Handmaiden to the likes of Oldboy (2003), but by demonstrating this strand of auteur-genius he should find himself in the thick of every discussion of Korea’s greatest ever directors.
We are spared nothing on the erotic elements of the film. Lengthy and graphic sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko will likely divide audiences, especially from a male director.
So are the scenes simply the ‘male gaze’ borne out again? Quite possibly, but there is a narrative relevance to them too. The first encounter is a ‘wedding night training session’, with Sook-hee demonstrating what Hideko can expect from the Count after tying the knot.
What is unclear at this point is the motivations behind this encounter. Deception? Loneliness? Coercion? Only by witnessing the more graphic elements of their later time in bed together do we get a better understanding of what brings them together.
The Handmaiden was a global success, topping many international critic’s best films of the year and decade lists. In cannon of modern Korean cinema, it finds itself in the upper echelon. And for those willing to argue it is contemporary Korean film’s very best, they are likely to find sympathetic ears.