Handmaiden, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/28/16 09:29:25
To look at on paper, “The Handmaiden” would seem to have all the makings of the kind of tony Oscar-baiting film that tends to flourish at this time of year, that brief period when studios temporarily recognize that they are actually allowed to make films that aren’t superhero sagas. After all, it is based on a highly regarded novel, Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith,” that was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize and offers up a period drama filled with lies, lust, deceit, surprising plot twists and even what used to be referred to as “the love that dare not speak its name.” You could probably even close your eyes and imagine how it might play out in the hands of any number of staid and straightforward filmmakers. There have been many words used to describe Park Chan-wook, the Korean filmmaker responsible for such wild cinematic provocations as “Thirst,” “Stoker” and his internationally acclaimed revenge-themed trilogy consisting of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance,” but “staid” and “straightforward” are not two of them. How the idea came about to allow him to adapt Waters’ book to the screen is unknown to me but it tuns out to have been an uncommonly inspired one for he has taken what could have been an ordinary and genteel costume drama and transformed it into an electrifying work that is in equal parts smart, bizarre, darkly funny, violent, powerfully acted and genuinely erotic.Set in 1930s-era Korea during the period when the country was under the control of the Japanese, the film is broken up into three sections. The first is centered on Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an impoverished orphan who has been raised by a loose family of criminal types to be a pickpocket. One day, they are visited by a sleazily charming man (Ha Jung-woo), a Korean con man pretending to be the Japanese count Fujiwara who wants to use Sook-hee to help with an elaborate plot to liberate Hideko (Kim MIn-hee), a lovely Japanese heiress who is living with her exceedingly creepy Korean uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plan is to get Sook-hee employed as a handmaiden for Hideko and gain her trust. Then, when Fujiwara turns up in order to woo Hideko, Sook-hee can help influence her mistress into accepting his proposals of marriage. After the elopement, however, he plans to have his new bride committed to a mental institution and make off with her fortune, giving Sook-hee enough to make a better life for herself for her part in the charade.
As heartless and greed-fueled plans involving emotional cruelty, false imprisonment and grand larceny go, this seems to be a pretty foolproof one on the surface. There turns out to be one tiny hitch and that is the inescapable fact that from the first moment that Sook-hee lays her eyes on Hideko, she falls madly in love with her. For her part, Hideko seems to lose her initially frosty nature after meeting her new servant. Before long, it is obvious that there is an obvious if unspoken sexual connection between the two, including one sequence that gets far more erotic heat out of a bathtub, a sore tooth and a lollipop than one might normally expect under those circumstances. Soon, Sook-hee is torn between continuing her con game with Fujiwara or confessing all to Hideko. At this point, I dare not reveal anything more about the plot except to state that other two sections retell the story from the respective perspectives of Hideko and Fujiwara that offer additional illumination to their respective backgrounds while offering the kind of wild plot developments that even those with a talent for sniffing out unexpected narrative twists and turns will almost certainly not see coming.
When a film contains a plot that is as spring-loaded with surprises as this one, there is the danger that they can wind up overwhelming the proceedings while leaving precious little of interest to anyone coming back for a second viewing. In the case of “The Handmaiden,” there is so much to savor that multiple viewings are almost a requirement to fully savor what Park has presented this time around. For starters, he has radically altered his directorial approach for this particular project—while his earlier films would blast right out of the gate and offer up one startling spectacle after another, he has here employed a slow burn approach in which the story and characters gradually reveal themselves in an unhurried yet utterly hypnotic style that lulls you in to the point that when he finally does detonate something startling, the results have twice the impact. The screenplay, which Park co-wrote with Seo-Kyung Chung, does a brilliant job of transposing the original story from its Victorian-era trappings in a way that adds an extra layer of tension and nuance by introducing the historical tensions between Japan and Korea into the mix in a creatively satisfying manner as well. Park also finds ways to introduce the themes that he has been exploring throughout his career into the framework without upending or overloading the story at hand. The look of the film is absolutely exquisite as well with production designer Seong-hie Ryu contributing what is easily the most memorable movie mansion to hit the big screen since “Crimson Peak” and cinematographer and frequent collaborator Chung-hoon Chung given the whole enterprise a dreamy look that effortlessly encompasses all the notes that the film hits, from the searing drama to the intense erotic heat to squirm-inducing horrors that need to be seen to be believed.
While it could be argued that Park has been the star of his films (even when he made his American studio debut with “Stoker” and got to work with the likes of Nicole Kidman and MIa Wasikowska), the actors he has assembled here more than hold their own. As the malevolent Uncle Kouzuki, Jin-woong Jo gives us a compelling portrait of a man who practically luxuriates in his own loathsomeness while Jung-woo Ha, as the faux count, pulls off the difficult of coming across as a complete monster throughout while at the same time figuring out a way to generate a certain amount of sympathy even during the final scenes where he finally gets what he so richly deserves. On the other side of the film’s gender war, Min-hee Kim as Hideko does a great job of playing a character whose motives we can never quite be sure of from scene to scene and newcomer Tae-ri Kim is an absolute revelation as Sook-hee, one of the most fascinating characters to appear on the screen this year. Many of the key scenes in the film involve the two actresses playing off of each other and those scenes have a grand intensity to them that has nothing to do with the erotic component on display but because they have brought their characters to life in thrilling and exciting ways. (That said, the erotic element of the film involving those characters, thanks in large part to their performances, is considerable as they steam up the screen in a manner not seen since “Blue is the Warmest Color.”)
.Visually intense, dramatically compelling and covering pretty every possible stop on the emotional scale from the perversely romantic to the just plain perverse, “The Handmaiden” is a must-see movie and arguably Chan-wook Park’s finest film to date. Despite the sprawling nature of the story, the languorous pacing and the 2 1/2 hour running time, he grabs the audiences in the very first frames and never once eases his grip on them until they very end. Because this is the first film he has made in Korea since attempting to find a place in the Hollywood filmmaking apparatus with “Stoker,” a good film that just didn’t click with audiences, some may look at it as him slinking back after failing to make it outside of his home country but this is as strong and self-assured as anything that he has ever done before. Oh, and if you are one of the hardcore gore hounds who loved the gruesomeness of things like “Oldboy” and “Thirst” and are worried that this particular story might seem a little too highfaluting for such nastiness, rest assured that you will be more than satisfied with that particular aspect—if you aren’t too busy covering your eyes, of course. .
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