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The Handmaiden (Director’s Cut)

Review:

An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith set in early 20th Century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Tae-ri Kim plays Sook-Hee, a con artist and thief who gets a job posing as a handmaiden for a wealthy heiress from Japan named Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who works as a “reader” for her rather creepy uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). Her mission is to persuade Hideko to get married to her employer Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a forger who schemes to have this well-heeled lady committed to an insane asylum after the knot has been tied, thus getting to keep her money for himself.

However, the more time Sook-Hee spends around Hideko, the more obsessed she becomes with her. She learns about her nighttime anxiety attacks (caused by the suicide of her mother, who hung herself from a cherry tree outside of their palace), and becomes curious about the labyrinthine home’s mysterious contents - not least her uncle’s library room, an area strictly off-limits to her (it is guarded, symbolically, by a jade cobra). Hideko is, in turn, exceptionally generous to Sook-Hee, supplying her with a pair of shoes from her personal collection when one of her own is mischievously stolen by another handmaiden. The pair soon embark on a fledgeling lesbian affair, a matter which complicates the overall scheme. Moreover, what seems to be a simple con job to snatch an heiresses’ cash turns out to be something far more complex.

Chan-wook Park’s stunning film deftly shifts in tone between period drama, intrigue, comedy, eroticism and horror while hanging together remarkably well throughout. While one could argue, when it comes down to it, that The Handmaiden is basically an exploitative potboiler, it is one of the richest and classiest around. Moreover, as with many of Paul Verhoeven’s films, the exploitative elements are a zealously-presented mechanism for satire and subversion rather than a salacious bucket list of titillating items presented for their own sake.

The core theme of the film is one of deception. Both the con artist and the wealthy, The Handmaiden proposes, are one and the same. Both attempt to present a surface of innocence and/or cool respectability that belies what hides underneath. It’s a notion the film portrays via a succession of twists, each one revealing another game of deception between the main protagonists. Like the labyrinthine palace and its warren of rooms, entrances and hiding holes, there’s something crucial around each corner that reveals more of the overall puzzle.

The endlessly twisting games of manipulation, cruelty and subterfuge are accompanied by a truly sumptuous visual language, with the director favouring muted pastel colour schemes and elaborate sets filled with all sorts of fanciful objects. The camera frequently captures the action in bird’s eye and flat side-on shots, but with a constant sense of movement giving the feel of an unfurling scroll. Everything here simply looks beautiful, even down to the impeccably-painted erotic books that feature heavily in the plot later on.

The performances may not speak as loudly as the visual flair, but when you look closely into them they are impressively multilayered achievements. Tae-ri Kim veers believably between meek reverence, sly seductiveness and, later on, giddy anxiety as her role changes from servant to lover to jealous onlooker. Min-hee Kim essays studied aloofness as the sheltered Lady Hideko before she, too, changes her tune as the script revelations drop out. Both actresses do a fantastic job with the shifting roles they present to the audience. Some of these changing faces are acts/shams, and some are genuine. However it’s a measure of the film’s credit that the “faked” character performances, while poker-faced when the audience isn’t let in on what’s really going on, are carefully overshadowed by the scenes depicting genuine emotions. Thus, when the pieces do fall into place, they do so on the emotional level as much as the do on the plotting and visual design levels.

Along with Elle, Certain Women and Raw it’s one of a string of excellent recent releases that present elaborate female characters in the forefront of the picture, and do so in a truly radical manner. Chalk it up as another must-see.

Runtime: 167 mins

Dir: Chan-wook Park

Script: Seo-kyeong Jeong, Chan-wook Park, from a novel by Sarah Waters

Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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