‘The Handmaiden’ is teasing storytelling
• Film Review
By Diana Cheng
CALGARY (Oct. 25, 2016) — “The Handmaiden” is Korean director Park Chan-wook’s premiering and Palme d’Or nominated feature at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Vulcan Award for the Technical Artist (Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste Technicien).
No stranger at Cannes, Park’s previous award-winning works are “Thirst” (2009) and “Oldboy” (2003). This time, Park has brought “The Handmaiden,” visually stunning with every shot beautifully framed, an elegant piece of cinematic artistry.
Based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 historical novel Fingersmith, Park has not only transported it from Victorian Era England to 1930’s Korea, but expanded the story with more complex plotlines and embellished the production with mesmerizing set design (Ryu Seong-hee) and cinematography (Chung Chung-hoon). Further, he has added more entertainment values with humor and surprise, twists and turns.
The three-part structure begins with Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) being driven to a mansion as the new handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress of a huge fortune. Sookee is actually an imposter, an illiterate pickpocket in a scheme masterminded by a con artist posing as a Japanese Count (Ha Jung-woo). Sookee is to gain the trust of her mistress Lady Hideko so she can be lured away when time matures to be locked up in a mad house while Sookee and the fake Count can run away with her fortunes.
With that, Park is following quite close to Waters’ Fingersmith. But his intriguing plot thickens with complexity as the film rolls on. Lady Hideko actually is under the controlling grasp of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a mysterious man obsessed with his private sexual perversion. On the surface, he is a collector of exquisite books and frequently conducts readings with his niece Hideko reading from the volumes.
As the film reveals slowly, we see those are erotica that Hideko reads out to tuxedo-donning men–the Count among them–who make up the captivated audience and prospective buyers of Kouzuki’s collection. One scene shows the bonus feature Kouzuki has designed to entertain his guests during one such readings to be a sexually charged performance by Hideko. Living under the domination of her Uncle, the outwardly naïve Hideko is laden with vulnerable sadness.
By the end of part one we begin to see a major twist. With that, the point of view changes from Sookee to Hideko. Part two shows how the original scheme is being derailed, and how Park has played a trick on the viewer, teasing with surprising twist and turn. But the viewer is already hooked. Park leads and captivates, an expert director telling his story with clever, visceral effects.
The mansion in the film is an architectural fusion of Victorian England and Japanese design, for the master of the house Uncle Kouzuki is an admirer of both cultures. 1930’s Korea is a Japanese-occupied land. Occupation, or being dominated and ruled over, seem to be the undercurrent of themes in “The Handmaiden.” The strong hold the weak for their own pleasure and gains. It is so with the class system of master and servant, it is so with the maltreatment of women by powerful men, and it is so too, when romance turns the table on the hierarchy of power.
Like the dual-style mansion, the film is a mixture of genres: gothic thriller, suspense drama, erotica. Viewers beware, “The Handmaiden” is full of director Park’s signature bold and intense treatment. There are explicit, no holds barred sex scenes when the handmaiden and her mistress’ attraction for each other turns from fake to real. In other scenes, the sadomasochistic exploit of women for men’s sexual pleasures are disturbing especially in our present day when misogyny is not only frowned upon but condemned right out. In the name of artistic expression or maybe even historic accuracy, such content is still a contentious issue in the mind of this reviewer when shown as entertainment.
“The Handmaiden” is a psychological, multi-faceted feature. It is exquisite in its aesthetics, and clever in its storytelling. On the whole, cutting out some excessive scenes could raise the comfort level and reach more viewers. Regardless, movie goers in North America now have an opportunity to judge for themselves.
“The Handmaiden is opening at Landmark Theaters everywhere this Friday, Oct. 28th.
Contact Diana Cheng on Twitter @Arti_Ripples or through her blog Ripple Effects, rippleeffects.wordpress.com.