The Handmaiden (2016) Park Chan-wook
Ever since it was shown at the Cannes film festival last year, there has been a real buzz about this film. The main talking point was what cult director Park Chan-wook would do with the source material, adapted from a Sarah Waters novel (Fingersmith). The book has been adapted for the screen once before as a BBC TV drama. His most interesting departure is changing the setting to Japan-occupied Korea In the 1930s. He also stages the film in three parts, so that we witness events from different viewpoints.
1930s Japan. Sook-hee (Kim Te-Re), goes to work as a maid for a Japanese heiress in a mansion owned by her controlling Uncle. Except that she is in reality a professional pickpocket and a dealer in stolen goods. It’s the first sign that things aren’t what they seem.
Then, there is a foppish Count (miscast Ha Jung Woo) who looks like he was born wearing a suit, but in reality was born the son of a poor fisherman. Here’s there to marry Hideko in order to de-fraud her of all her wealth. Then, there is Hideko’s Uncle Hizouki, played in an extremely mannered style by Korean actor Jin Woong Jo. Hideko herself is the most enigmatic and her motivations seem most difficult to understand. Is she really trapped in the house, and what are her feelings towards Fujiwara?
One of the first things to mention about this film is its unusual structure, which makes judging the characters much more difficult. We get to know them and think that we have the characters pinned down. Then in part two our understanding of the characters is upended. Sookhee is the narrator in part one, and we follow her as she works as a handmaiden to Hideko. Yet part two is from Himeko’s perspective and we learn for the first time how she came to live in the house as a young girl of 10.
It makes for a very interesting film. Part two is in many ways a different film from part one. It’s also where most of the racy stuff happens. For example, the sex scenes. Although there are some near pornographic scenes between Sookhee and Hideko, by far the most graphic scenes are when she reads from erotic literature to a group of wealthy Japanese men. It becomes heightened, especially with repeated references to the Jade gate, which is a poetic term for female genitalia. The film has two relationships that form a love triangle (well illustrated from the American poster). We don’t want the union between the Count to work because it’s far more interesting watching things develop between Hideko and Sookhee.
The last significant point to make regards the use of subtitling. We’re used to watching films in subtitled format, but this film has been subtitled from Korean and Japanese, so different colours are used for each language. It’s not at all confusing, but be aware that certain characters speak Korean and Japanese interchangeably.
Some have criticized the acting of Ha Jong Woo, He’s playing a conman and to be honest it must be a hard part when you’re playing someone who is pretending to be someone else. There is no problem with the female leads. Both Kim Minhee and Tae-ri Kim acquit themselves beautifully.
As with other films by this director, there are several visual flourishes. There’s a snake which guards a room, and a giant live octopus in a tank. The cinematography uses rapid zooms to bring us right up close to the action. Park has directed love films before but they have often been too perverse eg between vampires or characters who are related. However this is the most natural he has made so far.
The last thing to note is that this is a properly adult film, beautifully directed and intelligent enough to make it more than a merely commercial prospect. If you’re tired of watching sex scenes where the characters seem to stay fully clothed, you will appreciate the realism of the sex scenes here. After the underwhelming Stoker, it looks as though Park Chan-Wook is back in business.