Directed by: Chan-wook Park.
Written by: Seo-Kyung Chung & Chan-wook Park based on the novel by Sarah Waters.
Starring: Min-hee Kim (Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (Sook-Hee), Jung-woo Ha (Count Fujiwara), Jin-woong Jo (Uncle Kouzuki).
Too far is never far enough for Korean auteur Chan-wook Park – the filmmaker responsible for films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst and Stoker. His films are always violent, burst sexual taboos, and go to places that you never quite expect them to. Are they over the top? Sure – gleefully so at times, but not in a way that feels cheap. Park is a world class filmmaker, who deliberately pushes your buttons, and then stands back grinning. His latest, The Handmaiden, is two and half hours of pure, cinematic bliss.
The story takes place in Japanese occupied Korean in the 1930s. A conman, calling himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a Korean posing as a Japanese man, arrives at the home of a “family” of female pickpockets and thieves. He recruits Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), to pose as a handmaiden to a rich, Korean heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). She is worth a lot of money, and her only relative is an Uncle (Jin-woong Jo), who is obsessed with Japan, control her every move and plans to marry her, so he will have all the money. But Count Fujiwara has other ideas – the Uncle is in love with his vast library, and occasionally needs to services of a skilled forger to recreate his books – and this role is filled by the Count, a Korean man, posing as Japanese. He is also Lady Hideko’s art teacher. He plans on seducing her, marrying her, having her declared insane, and then having the money all to himself – and needs an inside man to help, which is why Sook-Hee will work as the Lady’s handmaiden – basically a personal servant who attends to her every need. Now, if you think I’ve given away too much plot – don’t worry. That’s all discussed in the first 10 minutes or so, and the film will twist and contort itself any number of ways through the course of the film – taking on the different perspectives of Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko in the first two acts, and then a more all-seeing one in the third. By the end, your dizzying at all the twists, but pleasantly so.
The film takes its time getting going – especially by Park’s standards. The first third seems like a fairly basic – if brilliantly stylized – conman moving, in which the perpetrator of the con and the victim, really do fall in love – although, with a lesbian twist. But Park is holding back in this sequence – which ends with a shocking twist, and then goes back over the same ground a second time, from a different point of view – this time holding nothing back. We see the same extended sex scene between the two women in both sections for example, but the first time, it almost seems sweet and innocent – the second time, it just keeps going and going, and is anything but innocent. That describes the movie as well. Yet, part of what makes the movie so good, is that each twist doesn’t make the characters less interesting or shallower – but the opposite. As they reveal themselves to each other, their connection deepens. As the film becomes more lurid, it also becomes more mesmerizing.
Park co-wrote the screenplay, based on a novel that was set in Victorian England, and transplanted it to Korea. In the mansion Lady Hideko lives in, he seems inspired by gothic romances – like Jane Eyre – and the mansion is slightly less show-offy, but just as brilliant as the one in Guillermo Del Toro’s similar gothic romance, Crimson Peak, from last year. Park’s film is better than Del Toro’s though, because it’s better written and performed – the characters seem real, no matter how insane the plot gets.
I know some will find the film the exploitive or hypocritical. It is, after all, a film about two women trapped by the male gaze – the two major male characters (and other, minor ones, whose roles I won’t spoil) look at Lady Hideko, not as a person, but as an object to get what they want – they barely see Sook-Hee at all. The story of the film has them break free of that prison – and yet is also one where it’s hard to deny the male gaze plays a part as well – all those sex scenes are as graphic and extended as those in Blue is the Warmest Color for example. I won’t argue against that point per se – except to say, that the sex scenes are in keeping with the rest of the film – bold and bracing and over the top and lurid, and certainly does keep in the themes of the movie in sight – that these two require men for absolutely nothing.
The Handmaiden is Park at the peak of his powers – arguably the best film he’s ever made, because it’s the most consistent from beginning to end, and although there are many shocking scenes in the film, it doesn’t seem like it was designed purely to shock (like some of his previous film). The film weaves its spell and doesn’t let go.