Movie Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Cast: Tae-Ri Kim, Jung-Woo Ha, Min-Hee Kim, Jing-Woong Jo
Synopsis: Thief Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) is hired by conman Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha) to aid in his plan to steal the rich Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min- Hee Kim) away from her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo). Yet a simple con trick spirals into an exquisitely filmed sexual thriller laced with the weirdness and humour which hallmark Park Chan-Wook’s films. The Handmaiden is a must see for fans of Park Chan- Wook.
Stoker was the first Park Chan-Wook film I saw. The experience of watching Stoker was akin to a dream before waking where the world is vivid and surreal yet so close to our own. While Stoker‘s gothic overtones lingers in your mind, The Handmaiden haunts with its visceral autopsy of male fantasies, which occasionally devolves into a sexploitation but with better cinematography. The film echoes a restrained ambience of weirdness throughout refraining from the excesses of David Lynch. The Handmaiden bristles with a visual opulence matching the decadence tasted by the Japanese elite which Lady Hideko and her uncle belonged to. Yet beyond the physical trappings, grandiose manor, and clean city streets which are revealed, there is a richness in every scene, particularly when the camera pans across the landscape. The verdant greens of mature firs revealed during a night-time drive clash with the blazing sun and roaring blue waves beating against the cliffs upon which Uncle Kouzuki’s estate sits. The Handmaiden may not be Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece, but surely presents his mastery of film.
The Handmaiden commences as a scheme to dupe Lady Hideko and slowly becomes a tale about women fighting against a male society that fetischizes and manipulates them. For a film that is an unfettered delve into sexual desire, the setting of Japanese controlled Korea in the 1930’s is a politically barbed statement towards Japan. The backdrop of Japanese rule coupled with the sordid desires of Uncle Kouzuki and his entourage of respectable Japanese noblemen eerily reminded me of the Comfort Women.
The Comfort Women were young women in the Asian countries conquered by Japan during the 1930’s and World War Two who were forced to be sex slaves. This dark sliver of history remains inflammatory between Japan and its Asian neighbours, where the events of World War Two are fresh wounds compared to Europe. While The Handmaiden bears no explicit reference to Comfort Women, the film’s depiction of sex and desire loses any whiff of eroticism once the connotations strike home, morphing The Handmaiden into a graphic attack on Japan’s misdeeds in Korea. Delving into hard subject matter is nothing novel for Park Chan-Wook, and his brand of black humour prevents The Handmaiden from excessive brooding. Both Count FujiWara and Uncle Kouzuki deliver comic relief, helping to humanise their selfish and deceitful characters.
The Handmaiden is close to a masterpiece but is flawed by its own focus on sex. The film is advertised as sexual thriller, far beyond the fodder of 50 Shades of Grey. Yet The Handmaiden’s unbridled depiction of sex, both in reality and fantasy is intentionally perturbing to the point where I longed for the film’s end. Moreover, the ending disappointingly devolved into soft porn, pandering to the very sexual desires the film had earlier lampooned.
The Handmaiden is a film that should be seen for its beauty and its oddity, but I could not stomach repeated viewing.
Target Audience: Fans of Park Chan-Wook of adult age, so parents, keep your DVD copy in a safe place.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer see below: