The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)
Korea (2016) Dir. Park Chan-Wook
Following a stint in Hollywood that yielded 2013’s Stoker, Park Chan-Wook is back on native turf and while the US idea of aesthetic grandeur has rubbed off on him The Handmaiden is just as subversive as Park’s previous Korean work.
Relocating the Victorian England setting of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith to 1930’s Japan occupied Korea, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) an orphaned pick pocket has been hired as the new handmaid to wealthy but reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). But Sook-hee is actually there to prime Hideko into falling in love with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo).
The Count is in fact a Korean swindler, hoping to steal Hideko away from her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong), Hideko’s guardian since she was orphaned as a child. Aware that Kouzuki is marrying her for her fortune, The Count plans to elope with Hideko to Japan, claim her riches then commit her to a mental hospital. However, Sook-hee develops feelings for Hideko, questioning her commitment to the Count’s plan.
Whenever a new film’s sex scenes gain a measure of advanced notoriety, people often fail to give the plot much of a thought. In the case of The Handmaiden this would be an act of gross negligence as the plot is the main driving force of this sumptuously shot, serpentine battle of wits.
Park’s first foray into the period drama may leave many to wonder if he is able to bring his esoteric touch to a genre that requires reverence shown to it, but for a director who enjoys colouring outside of the lines, Park does present us with a prim world that is about to receive an injection of anarchy into it – the source material sees to that.
Broken down into three parts, and flitting between the present and flashback, the film opens with Sook-hee accepting her new post before jumping back a few steps to when The Count announces his plan to his small criminal brethren. This Fagin like set-up is modest and unassuming to the public eye but even the young babies being comforted are primed as future pickpockets and scammers.
Lady Hideko has led a sheltered life, relocated from Japan at the age of five following her mother’s death to live with her uncle and aunt (Moon So-Ri). Easily tired and spooked, Hideko only shows herself when she is required to give readings of the books from her uncle’s impressive library, which he then sells to bidders.
Sook-hee’s cheekiness impresses Hideko – all the little crooked tricks she learned pay dividends when comforting her mistress – as does her capacity for sympathy, something she is not used to. The first signs of any Sapphic desires appear during bath time, when the situation demands close physical proximity.
By the time the Count arrives Hideko begins to know what her heart wants and it is not her male suitor despite him laying it on thick. Sook-hee however is slowly simmering with rage at how the Count is getting closer to Hideko, her jealousy increasing but her silence held to ransom by the Count, who is always one step ahead.
It is vital to note that the film is broken down in three parts – hence the near 2 ½ hour run time – just like the original novel. This is because the story then switches perspective moving Hideko into the position of narrator, providing us with an alternate view of what has transpired, along with a look into her past and revelations about the true nature of Uncle Kouzuki’s library.
Part three continues the story but focuses on the Count as the main subject, detailing the fall out of his actions. It is in this segment where Park indulges in a moment of self-referential frippery, dropping in the odd motif or two from some of his previous films, as if to reassure us he hasn’t sold out to Tinsel Town and he still knows how to play us like fiddles.
None of this detracts from what is a superbly crafted script however, the twists and turns coming just as we think we’ve figured it all out. By the third act Park deviates from the original novel but this is not a slight against Ms. Walters, Park’s story demands these changes. Similarly while the sex may appear gratuitous, it’s wholly congruent to the plot and the feminist message that simmers beneath the debauchery and deception.
This is more than about women getting down and dirty, ultimately revealing itself to show them reclaiming sex and their sexuality from the purview of male desires and fantasies. The content may veer into the fetishistic and the perverse but this merely adds further fuel to the potency of the parable at hand.
Park is also able to suffuse this often aberrant tale with some humour, almost pushing it into the realm of the black comedy but never letting the overall mood and tone slip. On occasion, these moments help alleviate the slight sag in the middle section, while for others distract them from the more explicit scene and language used, but with such a visually engrossing presentation, it is hard not to be transfixed for the duration.
Credit to the Korean cast for handling the Japanese dialogue well and for inhabiting their characters with aplomb, but this is about the two female leads. In her debut, Kim Tae-ri couldn’t have picked a more contentious and demanding role but she is an absolute star in the making, showing comic timing, dramatic chops and is cute as a button to boot.
While it might have been nice for a Japanese actress to play Hideko, Kim Min-Hee’s naturally beguiling features serve her well in creating such a multi-layered character, revealing hidden depths to her repertoire.
The Handmaiden is a lot more than Blue Is The Warmest Colour as written by Agatha Christie – simply put, it is the latest film from Park Chan-Wook and if you think you know what to expect then think again.
Rating – **** ½
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