The Handmaiden (2016) – Review

Park Chan-wook is back with his steamy new masterpiece, The Handmaiden!...Read More

THE HANDMAIDEN: (아가씨)

  • Directed by: Park Chan-wook (박찬욱)
  • Starring: Kim Tae-ri (김태리), Kim Min-hee (김민희), Ha Jung-woo (하정우), Cho Jin-woong (조진웅), Moon So-ri (문소리), Kim Hae-sook (김해숙)
  • The Film: Sook-hee (Kim-Tae-ri) is a young and ambitious swindler who becomes the new handmaiden for the wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min Min-hee). She plans to defraud the heiress with the help of fellow con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), but things become complicated when raw feelings emerge and begin to cloud their objectives.
    The film is based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters which was set in London during the 19th century. The film, however, was adapted to a 1930s setting in both Korea and Japan.

Review

The world got to know director Park Chan-wook after his tour de force Oldboy took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and officially put South Korea on the map to be recognized as a major voice in world cinema. As an internationally renowned director, he is known for his highly visual and stylized films, and even got a chance to make the full English language film, Stoker, that was well received and produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. The director’s latest film brings him back to Korea for his first feature length Korean language film released in seven years and I’m happy to report that The Handmaiden has been very much worth the wait.

Handmaid5

MINOR PLOT/SUMMARY SPOILERS
(Scroll Down For Spoiler Free Zone)

The Korean title “아가씨” (Agashi) translates as “Lady” and is a term used for an unmarried younger woman in Korea. So, the title would basically be referring to the character Lady Hideko, played by the mesmerizing Kim Min-hee (Right Now, Wrong Then, 2015). She is living with her bizarre Uncle Kouzuki who makes a living selling forged copies of rare erotic tales and artwork collected in books that she is strictly trained to give dramatic readings of for prospective buyers and enthusiasts (basically a group of perverted older men).

However, the English title “The Handmaiden” would directly be referring to Kim Tae-ri’s character, Sook-hee, as the maid she plays for Lady Hideko and arguably steals the show with her impeccable performance. Sook-hee was adopted into a family of swindlers and possess great skills in the art of forgery she learned from her mother who was a legendary swindler. Her job is to go undercover as Lady Hideko’s handmaid, to befriend her and encourage the advances of Count Fujiwara in the hopes of an eventual marriage agreement. Even so, the film is about both Lady Hideko and Sook-hee equally, and the English title probably just translates better.

The third main player is the devious Count Fujiwara played by Ha-Jung woo (Assassination, 2015; Nameless Gangster, 2012) who has become one of South Korea’s favorite actors. Count Fujiwara is hired by the Uncle to forge the erotic artworks that accompany the books to be auctioned at high prices and he convinces the Uncle to let him teach the Lady some basic art skills with the ulterior motive to court her. He and Sook-hee conspire together to defraud Lady Hideko’s fortune through the art of seduction. If successful, the deal between them is he will get her fortune and Sook-hee can take all her expensive jewelry and clothing.

This is where the story takes off and becomes overtly sexual in nature as the characters begin to enact their plans for each other. The Handmaiden has also garnered some buzz during its production and release over its reported lesbian subplot and sex scenes. After seeing it I can firmly say it features probably the most sexually explicit and eye-widening lesbian sex scenes since Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013) although less raw and more artfully portrayed.

    —SPOILER FREE ZONE BELOW

All three characters go back and forth between speaking Japanese and Korean throughout the picture and while their language skills are impressive, they are not flawless. So at first, it was very hard to see Kim Min-hee as a Japanese lady despite my best efforts to give in to the story (This is probably a non issue if you do not understand Japanese well). Luckily, the script ingeniously has her able to understand and speak Korean and after ten minutes or so all my reservations were thrown out and I was thoroughly captivated by the story and performances.

The Handmaiden spans a three part structure and does not follow a continuous timeline. There are flashback sequences as well as scenes that get replayed from new angles at later times that are told from different perspectives. This structure will have you guessing and second guessing outcomes all the way through. It has the feeling of an engrossing page-turning novella. This feeling might seem like an obvious effect as it is based on the English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. That being said, many films based on novels do not translate to the screen with that same engrossing sense intact as well as it does here.

While watching The Handmaiden, I couldn’t help trying to think of words to describe the genre and overall tone of the film. Sporadically throughout the film are odd and uncomfortable moments that incorporate stylized imagery meant penetrate on a subconscious level in an almost David Lynchian way. At other times it is a straight-up erotic thriller, yet finds time to be quite playful. I kept wanting to use the term adult fairy tale as I watched The Handmaiden; with Lady Hideko seemingly enslaved and set to be married to her strange uncle Kouzuki, Sook-hee and Count Fujiwara enter her life as possible lifelines and an escape from her loneliness. There is a constant sense that the film is riding just along the border of fantasy and reality, taking place in a magical world of its own.

The Handmaiden is one of those films where the less you know going in to the film the better. It’s full of perfectly framed imagery, where the colors are bright, sets are beautifully constructed, and the hypnotic score, costumes and makeup are all on point. Overall, The Handmaiden transcends genre traditions and ultimately becomes a graphic yet beautifully portrayed story of feminine empowerment and affection. It is one of the most skillfully crafted and structured stories I’ve seen on screen in a long while. This is Park Chan-wook’s new masterpiece and a near perfect film in many regards.

Trailer


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