THE HANDMAIDEN has one of the most threatening and inventive uses of an octopus since Oldboy. This is unsurprising given that South Korean director Park Chan-wook is the unique voice behind both, delivering his first feature film since 2013’s Stoker. Adapting Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, previously brought to screen as a BBC series set in its native Victorian England, Park effortlessly shifts the setting to 1930s colonial Korea in a version that is no less inventive, sexy or aware of its own turning cogs.
The first thing that will strike audiences about THE HANDMAIDEN is just how unreal the colours look. Before we know a thing about plotting or characters, Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon establish the hyperreality of the piece, a necessity as they continue to push the narrative into more unbelievable places. Con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) recruits street pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to work at the estate of the mysterious heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in an attempt to take her fortune. Yet as Sook-hee and Hideko grow closer, best laid plans take an interesting turn. Divided into three distinct chapters, the film is constantly shifting perspectives, partly to obfuscate the truth, but also to translate something distinct English into a piece that is mostly Park’s.
Excess is the name of the game in Park’s adaptation, true of many of his works, here shifting it from modern violence to sexual encounters. From the first glimpse of the manor house that forms the primary location of the film, a blend of an English Victorian opulence and Japanese elegance, iconography from both cultures pours off the screen. What amounts to a lavish ‘heist’ or ‘sting’ structure doesn’t fall to the rapid-fire editing of the genre, replaced instead with long lingering takes that allow the viewer to soak in the mise-en-scène. When Sook-hee first meets the obsessive book collector (Cho Jin-woong) that keeps Hideko captive, there’s an impressive tracking shot that pushes past a guardian ‘snake’ as the camera envelops the entire space. This slavish attention to the details of the production design would undermine the story, if not for the sense that Park and his crew have placed each thread there deliberately.
All of which might just be a well-dressed delivery capsule for the intensely erotic and equally excessive lesbian sex scenes that commence between Sook-hee and Hideko in the second and third chapters, ones that would take on a pay-per-view porn quality were they not also highly aware of their own farce. What will undoubtedly be referred to universally as the prolonged “scissoring scene” is an extended vision of two writhing female bodies exploring each other, spouting incredulous dialogue that could have be ripped from a paperback piece of purple prose, except it’s so (literally) tongue in cheek that it’s impossible to take it seriously, and nor does Park seem to want us to. Park even returns to the sequence from a different point of view in the third act, an even more heightened version of the original scene, and it’s here we realise how important the traditional roles that Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee have been playing. The innocent and mysteriously repressed archetypes have been hustling the audience, just as much as their intended targets of the sting.
THE HANDMAIDEN straddles the fine line between pointed satire and male fantasy, but also embraces its comic outlandishness at every opportunity. While diverging from Sarah Waters’ setting and plot at various key points, Park’s relocation of the film to something akin to home territory ensures that commentary on class structures and female empowerment remain firmly intact in the translation. So too does Park’s penchant for a ripping vengeance yarn, but the focus remains wholly on the individuals at the heart of the story. At times completely insane, THE HANDMAIDEN is a true cinematic experience.
2016 | South Korea | DIR: Park Chan-wook | WRITERS: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters | CAST: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri | DISTRIBUTOR: DreamWest | RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes | RATING: ★★★★½ (9/10)