Review: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s latest piece may well overtake Oldboy for the title of his best film yet

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★★★★★
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo
Length: 2hr 47m
Rating: Unknown

The latest offering from Chan-Wook Park may well be his masterpiece. Slick, sexy, and stunningly beautiful, it’s the classic Park cocktail of lust and grotesquery – it’ll leave your toes curling for one reason or another, at any rate.

Inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, the film feels much more like a tribute to the original work than an authentic recreation, deviating from the original plotline entirely by the end of its second act. It’s also been relocated over 5000 miles to the east, to the Japanese occupied Korea of the 1930s, rather than Victorian London.

Kim Tae-Ri plays Sook-Hee, an orphaned pickpocket who is hired as handmaiden to a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). But there’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye – Sook-Hee is embroiled in a plot to have Hideko declared insane, so that she and a con artist, dubbing himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) may steal her inheritance while she is institutionalised. In an arc which feels quite inevitable, Sook-Hee finds herself falling for the other woman.

Narratively, it makes just as many u-turns as we’ve come to expect from Korea’s most boundary-pushing filmmaker. They don’t all come completely out of the left field – the big reveal where we see that both women have a myriad of secrets under wraps isn’t exactly a surprise. But it never feels ill thought out or forced. The comic relief scattered throughout is a particularly nice touch, especially the moment where one character (no spoilers here, don’t worry), realising the jig is up, sits there resigned to their demise, contentedly smoking three cigarettes at once.

And just like any other film by Park, the casting is second to none. The characters are all endearing, deplorable, and undeniably human. Particular kudos must go to Kim Tae-ri – it’s her debut feature length performance, but she carries her role with the finesse of somebody who’s been in the industry for years, rather than a newcomer. Equally impressive is Cho Jin-woong, as the perverted Uncle Kouzuki. He’s not quite as major a player in the story, but he perfectly balances being equally intimidating and pathetic, at once a scheming chauvinist and a snivelling fool who thinks with his brain in between his legs.

Speaking of, it’s difficult to discuss the film without reference to the myriad lesbian sex scenes, which have been on the tips of many a critic’s tongue. They’ve been labelled as gratuitous, Park’s male gaze projected onto a relationship between two women.

Image: CJ Entertainment

Image: CJ Entertainment

But the male characters in the film seem snivelling and pitiful, impotent patriarchal voyeurs, and the passions of Sook-Hee and Hideko feel like a means by which they may transcend the male-dominated world they find themselves in, as well as begin to explore one another. They’re not scenes you’d want to watch with your mother, but they don’t feel as though they’re put in there to be pornographic – a far cry from the male masturbatory fantasies of Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The Handmaiden isn’t just an erotic thriller, however. It’s an emotive romantic drama too. Sookhee and Hideko’s liaison manages to be both troubling and genuinely touching; they spend just as much time slapping each other in the face as they do kissing. As much as you root for them, it’s plain they have the potential to be toxic to one another. But that’s the trademark of a great director, to make you both defend and condemn what you see before you. Much like the lovers in Oldboy, despite the intricacies of the relationship setting your teeth on edge and throwing your moral compass out of alignment, you begrudgingly end up hoping things work out.

The direction is masterful, the performances enthralling, the narrative a delectable course of twists. It’s charming, alluring, and at times very consciously funny. Come for the skeletons in the closet, stay for the octopi in the basement.

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