So I don’t know a lot about Korean Cinema. I have seen some of it, but I could probably count them on my fingers. One of the Korean filmmaker who crops up more than others and that is Park Chan-Wook, perhaps the most prominent Korean filmmaker, who brought Korean cinema to the global stage through his 2003 film Oldboy. He had a brief foray into Hollywood in 2013 with Stoker and producing Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, both receiving fantastic reviews and classic cult status. Now Chan-Wook returns to Asia with his new film The Handmaiden, a Japanese/Korean Language adaptation of an English crime novel, The Finger Smith. Will this film be another home run for an Asian director who can apparently do no wrong?
Set in Japanese-occupied Korea, the film focuses on Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a Korean thief and con artist, who is hired to defraud the beautiful, naive and wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by another con artist Count Fujiwara. However in the attempt, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love, and together they plan to escape the clutches of the men that have tried to trap them.
While I will try not to give much of the story away, I still feel it is important to talk about it. The Handmaiden, much like the original novel, is split into three parts the first is from Sook-Hee’s perspective, then as the first major twist is enacted, it switches to Hideko’s. Finally, after the second twist, the narrative returns to Sook-Hee for the most part. While overall the story is good, I did feel that the reveal of the third twist was somewhat underdeveloped. It felt out of keeping with what we had seen from one of the characters and as a result, the reveal felt rushed and unbelievable. Though I did find myself surprised, shocked and entertained by the other twist that was involved in the story, as despite this one particular flaw it is still a great story, that will leave you guessing right til the very end.
A great story is nothing without memorable characters, and The Handmaiden has a small but exquisite cast of them. Each performance is perfect; a lot has already been said of Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, indeed they have been nominated for Best Actress at multiple award ceremonies. However, I think it is also necessary to talk about the villains of the piece Count Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki. Fujiwara played by Ha Jung-woo is perfectly played as a man with the mask of charm, but in actuality is bumbling and insecure. Similarly, Cho Jin-Woong disappears into Uncle Kouzuki, who is both chilling and pathetic, a masterful performance.
Those behind the camera also clearly have a masterful approach to the craft. Visually the film is spectacular. Chan-wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon do a fantastic job conveying the opulence and luxuriousness of the setting through gorgeous colour, and intricate production design. However, they are also able to capture the strange atmosphere of the setting, leaving certain bits of information to be revealed until the last minute that, together with a hackle-raising score by Cho Young-wuk and a virtuosic edit by Kim Hae-bum and Kim Sang-bum, leaves a tension in the pit of your gut for the entire film.
The film is a masterclass in movie making and something that should be sought out by anyone who can get to a screening.
On to the intellectualising part of the review, where I try to show off some of my intelligence and come across as pompous and pretentious. The Handmaiden is clearly about female emancipation; the film shows the two characters Sook-Hee and Hideko as being used by the male characters, but through their own agency they extricate themselves from the situation. The primary source of control is through sexuality; Hideko reads erotica for her uncle and for his friends, and the only way she can be freed is through a plan concocted by Count Fujiwara to marry him, and trick Sook-Hee who thinks she is part of another plan to outsmart Hideko. Only by working together instead of being pitted against each other can they free themselves. Toward the climax, Sook-Hee tears up all of the antique erotic manuscripts as a means to show their liberation, but I did have one problem with it. While not a prude, or at least, I don’t consider myself a prude, I found the sex scenes between the two leads to be a bit graphic, while they can be regarded as important to show their exploration of themselves and their bodies However I was aware of the male director and myself enforcing our male gaze upon them. The sex scene at the end of the film especially felt a bit like the film was having its cake and eating it too while claiming it as a feminist act; it was also revealing in its erotic nature. However maybe that is the point, maybe the film is a checker for the male gaze, or maybe they weren’t as free as they thought. I may watch the film again, to make my decision as to which way I feel about it, but for now I can only ponder and let you decide what you think.
You can watch The Handmaiden at the Little Theatre in Bath now