The Handmaiden Review

kim-min-hee-handmaidenPark Chan Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Water’s historical crime novel is beautiful. This is no surprise as all of Park Chan Wook’s films are beautiful. Chung Chung-hoon (Park’s cinematographer since Oldboy) has once again delivered one of the more visually stunning films of the year. Vivid colours are used provocatively to invoke a fanciful vision of occupied Korea. What is a relief is that the film contains the compelling characters and deep insight that Park’s last film, Stoker, unfortunately lacked.

Park has returned to the theme of female sexuality that he previously explored in Stoker and Thirst, this time focussing on a burgeoning relationship between a young heiress and her handmaiden. However as you’d expect from a work adapted from a crime story, there are a great many twists in the story. What sets this apart from other erotic crime fiction (aside from the technical prowess) is our emotional engagement with the story. This can be attributed to the excellent performances, especially Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee who is at times subtly hilarious and deeply heart-breaking. Ha Jung-woo is wonderful as the conman who attempts to manipulate both women.

There is the same potential problem with this film as Blue is the Warmest Colour, namely that this is a film about female sexuality as written and directed by a man (admittedly in both cases adapted from works by female authors). Just as with that film I feel there is more going on here. The film concerns itself with the excitement of new love and its ability to liberate us from seemingly inescapable circumstances. However with this film, I believe that Park may have anticipated this issue.

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One of the more interesting themes of the film is sexual exploration. At the screening of the film I attended Park Chan-wook mentioned that his fans in Tokyo have nicknamed him the “intellectual pervert”. As we explore the household of The Handmaiden we realise that some very niche sexual practices are being explored, tantalisingly hinted at by a pair of brass balls found in a drawer early in the film. Around the midpoint of the film we are presented with a room full of men watching a woman tell an erotic story. We see her tell multiple stories involving tentacle beasts, asphyxiation and object sexuality. The men are entranced by this erotic display, whilst the film presents it as a lurid and rather cold affair. The woman is being exploited.

This is contrasted by the incredibly warm and intimate filming of the love scene between Sook-Hee and Hideko. The scene is actually visited twice during the film from different perspectives. The scene is very erotic and exciting, not least because we know these characters and understand what this experience means to them. I believe we are to contrast these scenes. One is titillation derived from imagined scenarios, the other is the genuine eroticism of seeing two characters we care about connect physically. Yet perhaps we can allow this opportunity to contemplate our voyeurism. Even though we understand their situation better, are the character still being exploited for our benefit?

Relocating the film from Victorian Britain to 1930s Japan has an interesting effect on the story. Whereas the recent film “When Marnie Was There” (a studio Ghibli production of an Irish novel) moves the action to Japan with only some aesthetic nods to its original setting, Park uses this as an opportunity to comment on the period and place. The film is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Early in the film it is mentioned that Kouzuki, the man who built the house, combined eastern and western traditions. This contrast of designs is evident throughout and creates a dynamic impression of a country transforming.

Ultimately this is Park Chan-Wook’s most engaging and entertaining film since Thirst. His trademark dark humour, startling violence and kinky eroticism are all in full effect. If some of those elements put off certain people, then that’s just all the more reason to cherish the film. I look forward to seeing it again when the film is generally released next year, as I’m sure there is much more to see.

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