Review: The Handmaiden

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Oldboy, Park Chan-Wook’s great masterpiece of revenge, has left an unforgettable impression on audiences worldwide since its debut in Cannes 13 years ago. The Handmaiden (nominated for the Palme d’Or this year), his first Korean production in eight years, continues to delight fans with the use of his trademark elements such as black humour, revenge, violence, as well as a surprisingly fairy-tale romance between the two female leads.

As the director explained in interviews, The Handmaiden is inspired, rather than directly adapted, from Sarah Waters’ crime novel Fingersmith. Except from borrowing the basic plot and main characters, Park creates his own world of lies and secrets set in the Japanese-occupied Korea, continuing his exploration on the themes of revenge and deception while adding a touch of feminism to his latest movie.

The Handmaiden can be classified as an erotic crime thriller for its intricate plot and explicit sexual scenes between the two leading actresses. Hired by Count Fujiwara, a Korean con artist posing as Japanese nobleman, Sookee left her adopted family of thieves and forgers to serve Lady Hideko, a wealthy Japanese heiress whom Fujiwara hopes to seduce for her fortune. As the audience follow the footsteps of Tamako (Sookee’s alias) into the dangerous world of Hideko controlled by Uncle Kouzuki, the situation complicates with a forbidden attraction developing between the maid and her mistress. The roles of hunter and prey become unclear as the line between love and lust blurs.

One area where Park never disappoints his audience is the combination of beauty and violence in his exploration of the darkness of human nature. The Handmaiden continues this tradition, but with a lighter tone. The use of black humour re-occurs in several anti-climactic scenes, as well as several sarcastic lines mocking the foolishness of male characters.

Despite the exquisite visual design, surprising plot twists, and accelerating narrative pace, The Handmaiden is hardly Park’s best movie compared with his earlier works. It is undeniable that the four main leads and a strong supporting cast did contribute their best to the performance. Yet due to the limitations of the script, the characters lack the complexity and depth demonstrated in Park’s earlier movies.

Fujiwara, played by Ha Jung-Woo (one of the most talented Korean actors under 40), could almost be described as a plot device. Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean who admires the Japanese culture to such an extent that he chooses to adopt Japanese identity, is used by Park to reflect on Koreans’ complicated psychological reaction towards colonialism. Despite a remarkable performance from Cho Jin-Woong (whose talent was finally recognised in the detective drama Signal broadcast earlier this year), Kouzuki remains a flat character throughout. One could arguably say that even the appearance of the octopus (a joking reference to Oldboy) is more memorable than him.

Moreover, compared to Geum-ja in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) who embodies the conflicting ideals of revenge and atonement, the characterisation of Hideko lacks sufficient psychological description to illustrate her gradual change in feelings towards Sookee. However, actress Kim Min-Hee (who shone in Hong Sang-Soo’s Right Now Wrong Then (2015)) still manages to deliver a captivating performance as the fragile yet duplicitous mademoiselle with subtle body language and facial expressions. She captures the spirit of the kaleidoscope-like Hideko with elegance, blending in with Park’s disturbing yet enchanting style perfectly.

The greatest surprise, however, would be the debut of a fresh face to Korean cinema: Kim Tae-Ri. Reminding Park of the young Kang Hye-Jung (Mi-do in Oldboy), she delivers her role as the sly yet innocent Sookee with the confidence and maturity unexpected of a newcomer. Simply speaking, the young Ms Kim steals the spotlight from her more experienced co-stars, which is no easy feat in a Park Chan-Wook movie.

By portraying a lesbian relationship explicitly in a mainstream movie, Park continues to challenge culture taboos with his signature artistic style. Despite its various interpretations, The Handmaiden is simply the love story between a damsel in distress and her saviour, which just happens to have both parts played by women. It’s always welcoming to see the variety of female characters expand in the movie industry.

The Handmaiden may not be the best film of Park’s illustrious career, but he certainly lives up to his reputation as one of the greatest Asian filmmakers alive. As one of his devout cinephiles, I can’t help but look forward to his next surprise.

‘The Handmaiden’ is expected to hit UK cinemas in February 2017.

Photograph: Baggio.

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