2016. Directed by Park Chan-wook.
One of the most remarkable things about watching films is when you get entranced by the world within the story. Park Chan-wook’s erotic noir, The Handmaiden, is a sterling example of storytelling made possible by an elaborately constructed environment filled with mysterious pleasures and unspeakable evil.
Petty thief Sook-hee is handpicked by the Count, a Korean grifter looking to get rich posing as a noble during the 1930’s Japanese occupation. The con involves Sook-hee serving as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko, a despondent heiress who is rumored to be engaged to her reclusive uncle Kouzuki, a purveyor of rare and deviously risque literature. Sook-hee is to assist with ensuring Hideko falls in love with the Count so that they can marry, allowing her partner to have the lady committed to a sanitarium, and leaving him as the sole inheritor of her immense fortune. Told over three painfully detailed acts, depicting conflicting points of view, The Handmaiden unfolds into a sexual free fall, in which unbridled passion, tenuous loyalties, and unsettling truths converge into a graphic parable on the cost of desire.
Chan-wook adapted the script from Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith. The first act is deliberately slow, introducing the players and casually drawing the viewer into the anachronistic world of Hideko’s sinister household. While the narrative slightly drags during the overlong introduction, there are endless details whose relevance, once revealed, shows the genius of Chan-wook’s malicious design. Ryu Seong-hie’s art direction is meticulous and engaging, with the composition of antique relics and unusual sexual devices hiding danger and wonder in equal amounts. Sang-gyeong Jo’s costume design is a temporal paradox, blending the modern suits of the faux nobility with the pristine kimono’s of the Japanese elite. Every item, location, and character has an alluring quality, with each individual element concealing an abyss of shadows waiting to be explored.
Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography has a conspiratorial vibe, capturing various scenes from different angles, with each representing a different player in the macabre contest. Featuring some of the most vivid sex scenes ever filmed, the camera hovers and spins over top of the couplings, mimicking the heady dizziness of sexual release. This a gorgeous film populated with gorgeous people, and Chung-hoon encompasses every sexual encounter with an uncomfortable lingering eye that perfectly encapsulates the beauty of forbidden consummation.
Kim Min-Hee as Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee give excellent performances, completely submitting to Chan-wook’s vision, but also giving each of their roles a personal touch that is vulnerable and empowering throughout. Ha Jung-woo as the Count delivers a wonderfully subtle turn, whose fatalistic tendencies deliver one of the best surprises. Cho Jin-woong’s portrayal of the uncle evokes a skin crawling reaction in every scene, simulating a monstrosity in human guise, desperate to shed his skin and revel in the darkness underneath.
While the Hitchcockian influences are undeniable, The Handmaiden defies ordinary constraints due entirely to Chan-wook’s trademark panache. Taking a base concept of deceit and infusing it with sexual audacity and unsettling insinuations, this is a film that uses every technical aspect to create a poisoned fairy tale, in which normal conventions are inverted so that the viewer is never able to predict the outcome as the story unfolds in three very unique segments, where atypical archetypes are the weak sister and the underdog is the apex.
In theaters now, The Handmaiden is one of 2016’s most artistic films. Featuring beautifully unabashed sex scenes, a dream like world filled with wonder and terror, and a host of strong performances, The Handmaiden delivers on every level. A potent love story, a noir mishmash of betrayal and violence, and subtle critique on the Japanese occupation of Korea, this is a film that will arouse and repulse in equal amounts, everything that Park Chan-wook’s brilliantly vicious filmography is known for.