During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a thief (Kim Tae-ri) masquerades as a handmaiden an elaborate scheme to cheat an heiress (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune. The plan is complicated considerably more when Sook-Hee falls for Lady Hideko, her employer, playing the part of a Count (Ha Jung-woon) muscles in on their relationship and the various parties involved make their true intentions clear.
Presented as a sprawling dark-romantic epic with stately, languid cinematography (by Chung Chung-hoon of OLDBOY and STOKER) to match, The Handmaiden undeniably looks great, both in prettily adorned scenes of comfort and passion and also when the plot takes far more sinister turns. Few can pick out moments of beauty in brutality and sadism, but somehow Park manages it. The setting allows him to pick and choose from a collage of cultural influences and gives the mansion at the film’s heart a unique aesthetic.
By transposing Sarah Waters’ story to 1920s Korea, the already intriguing character piece is given added socio-historical punch, with Koreans choosing to play Japanese for status or aspiring to be accepted as such by their invaders th, this in addition to the deception and power-plays already present in the story. No-one is who they say they are and every character plays multiple parts depending on the situation and where they currently find themselves in the pecking-order.
Park could admittedly have probably shaved off twenty minutes from the runtime (I write this not having seen his longer Director’s Cut), but where would the cuts come? Well, for a start, the sex. As I’ve said before, I consider SHORTBUS one of the finest and most moving films I’ve ever seen, but I got so bored with the sex scenes in The Handmaiden. “Sex, sex, sex, that’s all you think about”, as Brian’s mum would say. Unless you’re Shortbus, in which every act of lust said something new about the characters, I’m not convinced any film needs more than one sex scene. Once it’s done it’s done. Said scenes are fairly artful and aren’t presented quite as porny as in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR, but they still become tedious. The Handmaiden shows us the same sex scene twice, with an extension (oo-er) for the second go, and variations of scenes in which an exclusive club of dirty old men listen to pornographic stories.
I also had a problem with the film’s portrayal of madness. Even in a sometimes soapy period melodrama, there are other ways to depict a character with mental health problems than boggling eyes and sharp strings on the soundtrack (composer Jo Yeong-wook could have dialed it down on a few occasions really). It’s not a subtle film, and that doesn’t bother me in a film with big emotions and big acts of deception, but for me this almost approached parody-level.
What will enrapture you is the sumptuousness of the visuals and particularly the richness of the key characters. The lead pairing of thief-turned handmaiden Sook-Hee and her seemingly fragile mistress Hideko makes for a fascinatingly contradictory relationship to match the contradictory world they live in. Their passion-at-first-sight has to weather a lot of manipulation by other parties and the dynamic of their relationship changes drastically multiple times over the film. Kim Tae-ri completely steals the show, embodying Sook-Hee’s endearing awkwardness and her relishing usually being the most intelligent and in-control person in the room despite seeming completely nonthreatening. Kim Min-hee comes into her complex own in the film’s second act and he third side in this triangle of control is “Count Fujiwara” made conniving but beguiling by Ha Jung-woo, who has the quote of the film with, “Where I come from it’s illegal to be naive”. Seemingly from another film entirely is Jo Jin-woong’s Uncle Kouzuki, a cartoony pervert with a black tongue, leather gloves and awful dusty old man makeup.
Despite the odd stumble and some scenes outstaying their welcome, The Handmaiden remains Park Chan-wook’s most ambitious film to date, a depraved and well-appointed feast for the senses that draws upon his country’s traumatic past to embellish an already compelling story. SSP