The Handmaiden was one of my most anticipated TIFF films and the long wait to finally see it proved worth the wait.
Let’s bitch it out…
Some of my favourite films of the last two decades have hail from South Korea, and several of those films are part of the shocking oeuvre of acclaimed director Park Chan-wook. This is the man responsible for thrilling, visceral films like Oldboy, Thirst and Stoker – features that are heavy on decadence, violence and taboo sexuality. His films are always visually sumptuous, thematically rich and packed with complicated characters.
Chan-wook’s new film The Handmaiden bears all of the director’s signature hallmarks. An adaptation of the British novel Fingersmith, the action has been transported from England to Korea where young pickpocket Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is recruited by roguish gold-digger Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to go undercover as the handmaiden of a Japanese noblewoman, Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The con artists plot to convince Hideko to escape from the clutches of her Korean uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) and abscond back to Japan to marry Fujiwara. Once they have her inheritance, Hideko will be committed in a sanitarium. Naturally there’s much more to the story than initially meets the eye – several of which are hinted at by the fact that Sook-hee’s introduction is subtitled Part One. In total the film is broken up into three distinct acts and if the first serves to set-up the nefarious scheme, introduce the players and establish the lay-out of Kouzuki’s secluded palatial home, then Parts Two and Three double back to reveal unexpected back stories, alternative perspectives of previously glimpsed scenes and Chan-wook’s trademark resolution built around grisly bouts of violence.
The Handmaiden evokes both a Gothic romance as well as film noir, especially when the two women begin an illicit love-affair. While the film employs several narrative strategies and character types that wouldn’t be out of place in Rebecca or a Sam Spade story, it is the visual splendour that elevates The Handmaiden into something uniquely different. This is most evident in the lovingly constructed British/Japanese hybrid style of Kouzuki’s house, which comes complete with hidden floor panels, rows of doors and a basement of horrors that fans of the director will enjoy for a single sight gag alone. Chan-wook’s attention to detail in his sets remains on display, scaled back from the excess seen in Stoker, but nonetheless immersive. The same can be said for the costumes, hair and make-up, particularly Hideko’s “reading” outfits when the noblewoman is called upon to entertain her uncle’s guests with sexually provocative tales from his private library.
The intersection of sexuality, violence and revenge is a pervasive theme in all of Park Chan-wook’s films and The Handmaiden is no different. The three act structure (particularly between 1 & 2) works to unexpectedly upend viewers’ expectations to create an entertaining, mesmerizing and tantalizing film experience. If the film buckles a little under its more straightforward third act after most of the film’s twists have been exposed and the hard-core lesbian sex scene has played out, The Handmaiden remains a compelling piece of visual art. The conclusion of this sexual fable may be a little subdued, but audiences hungry for provocative foreign fare will find much to enjoy in this gem.