11th Aug2017

‘The Handmaiden’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tae-ri Kim, Min-hee Kim, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong | Written by Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook | Directed by Park Chan-wook


Based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s first feature since 2013’s Stoker is a ravishing feminist fable, full of fantastically cruel twists. It’s sensual, funny, nasty, brilliantly acted, beautifully shot and exquisitely edited.

The setting is 1930s colonial Korea, slap bang in the middle of Japanese rule. Nam Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket, is approached by smooth conman “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo), who intends to swindle money from a wealthy Korean aristocrat known as Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plan is for Fujiwara to seduce Kouzuki’s niece, Izumi Hideko (Min-hee Kim), and steal away with her uncle’s cash. Sook-hee will act as Hideko’s handmaiden, and help manipulate Hideko into Fujiwara’s arms.

But then an intimate relationship blooms between Hideko and Sook-hee. It seems that the tables have turned until – let’s mix metaphors – the rug is pulled from under us in Part 2. Suddenly we’re aware of a second plot, and our cherished love story takes on a different hue. Composer Cho Young-wuk’s score changes from sweeping romance to atonal horror. Still, the story isn’t done yet: Part 3 shifts our perspective once again, and we find ourselves closer to the territory of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy.

There are picaresque hints of Barry Lyndon in The Handmaiden’s combination of stately beauty, scheming, opportunism, and absurdist humour. The Handmaiden could have been a vicious satire, but Park’s film never succumbs to cynicism, and ultimately it is a positive and emotionally satisfying story about feminine love winning out over masculine power. As it does so, the film asks questions of the nature of monogamous love in general: How much of what the other shows us is genuine? Here, the answer comes in the form of some very frank love scenes involving Hideko and Sook-hee. These sequences are graphic, yet they also move the story forward, for they are the moments where the women’s affections are straightforward and true. We are informed of the characters’ changing relationship through the way they relate to each other’s bodies.

More so than language, anyway. Throughout the film, the spoken word is presented as something untrustworthy; a source of malignant power. Not just in the words Fujiwara uses to slither toward the Kouzuki fortune – via Hideko’s bed – but also in more basic ways. Library-owner Kouzuki literally trains his girls to be more presentable and obedient (not to mention more Japanese) through the medium of erotic literature. Ironically, these grubby stories – elaborately presented with theatre sets and whipping and performance art – are both a means of controlling Hideko, but also a way of her realising her power over men.

The language of flirtation is code, especially when it’s forbidden love between two women. Likewise, Sook-hee and Fujiwara must speak in code to cover their shared plot. To be unable to express oneself authentically is to be powerless. There is a consistent theme about identity and its relationship with power; specifically, who we are allowed to be, within a social structure. Kouzuki, who has a creepy reverence for his colonial masters, is monstrous in his application of power, which makes his juvenile love of pretty young things even more terrifying.

This isn’t to say that the other characters are angels, including the two main women. The glacial Hideko, prone to violent tantrums, seems like a spoilt brat until we discover the truth of her upbringing. And innocent-looking Sook-hee begins as a simple gold-digger: “I’d like to show her to the people at home,” she initially says of Hideko, as if the object of her lust were a gemstone to be stolen and displayed. The difference is that while the women are forged by a patriarchal system of power, they are not its beneficiaries. Their mutual realisation of each other’s emotional needs is gradual and touching. It is rebellion through empathy.

Ultimately, the film concludes, the idea of male possession of female beauty is just fantasy. “Women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force,” the men tell each other, betraying a secret longing to provide their prey with pleasure. But by the end we are in no doubt that the women absolutely don’t need men for pleasure. Male power is a basic power over the physical body. The simplicity of sex as a means to power degrades both genders. There are no shortcuts to intimacy, as the delicateness, respect and trust of the women’s love shows.

There is a paradoxical kind of power in the image of men the movie leaves for us: crying and bleeding in a smoky, windowless room, sharing stories of how they almost had sex with women who never wanted them. It’s hilariously emasculating.

As the cocky, naive Sook-hee, it is an astonishingly expressive performance from Tae-ri Kim, both vulnerable and fierce. Hideko is the tougher sell: at once porcelain and privileged, it’s some time before we see the horrors that froze her heart. Min-hee Kim guides us through her thawing with great skill, and it is a heartening and convincing transition.

Park is a visual poet, and his work is often tinged with dark humour. At one point a character describes her mother hanging herself, and then Park cuts to a silhouette of a woman’s long hair braid being extended to the ceiling like a noose. There is style, but always at the service of substance. The marriage sequence toward the end of the first part – an epic journey to Japan, condensed to five minutes – is a sumptuous episode of visual storytelling, which never loses sight of its characters amongst the gorgeous scenery; and it’s married to a beautifully melodic, Michael Nyman-esque rolling piano score.

The Handmaiden is a rampantly gorgeous period drama, with enormous depth and a wicked sense of humour. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, whose nonlinear narrative structure only enhances its power. Landing a tone almost touching on gothic, it’s a movie in which to lose oneself – and to emerge from refreshed and reminded of the power of cinema to marry the intimate and the majestic.

The Handmaiden is out on Blu-ray now from Curzon Artificial Eye.


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