by Byron Bixler
Part of our coverage of the 2016 Ithaca Fantastik Film FestivalWhen it comes to director Park Chan-wook, one must expect the unexpected. Of course, you can always count on his distinctive dark humor and creatively brutal brand of violence, but Park’s way of weaving these elements into a larger story is never initially obvious. In titles like Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst, we’ve seen densely-packed, twisty narratives veer into uncharted territory with quirky developments and uncomfortable psychosexual undertones. However, no matter how strange the proceedings become, Park somehow consistently delivers a coherent and spellbinding final product. An institution of the thriller genre, Park has often been compared to Alfred Hitchcock, and if Stoker was his deliciously blackhearted take on Shadow of a Doubt, then The Handmaiden is his Vertigo.
Presented in three parts, the Korean auteur’s latest film is a loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and replaces the novel’s Victorian Britain setting with that of Japan-occupied Korea. The cast of characters is limited to four major players. Leading the way is Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a mousy pickpocket hired by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Sook-Hee (the handmaiden of the title) plays a key role in Fujiwara’s plans to marry and later discard the aloof Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in order to steal the heiress’s inheritance. Rounding out the quartet is Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a classic Park Chan-wook antagonist — callous, domineering and a massive perv. Kouzuki holds power over all, and while he has significantly less screentime than the other three characters, his presence in the story is easily the most strongly felt.
It is at this point that I stress once again the importance of thinking outside the box when approaching a Park Chan-wook film. As straightforward as that premise sounds, there are many more intricacies and perspective-altering shifts of power that emerge as the movie plays out. But fear not, this isn’t the part where I pivot into spoilers; the experience of watching this film is undoubtedly enhanced by not knowing the finer details of the plot.
Putting that tantalizing mystery aside, allow me to tempt you with the film’s sumptuous design. The world that Park creates here is every bit as detailed as the layered story he’s telling. There’s a delicate quality to the period costuming and intoxicatingly baroque sets. We get a sense of a social environment that is formal and pristine, where everything is situated just so. The exteriors are refined, but this adds all the more to the disturbing effect of the ugliness that swims just beneath the surface (and yes, that verb is literal — use your imagination).
As the narrative plates shift under our feet, forcing the audience to trade one form of discomfort for another, swinging sympathies from one character to the next, Park’s camera remains dizzyingly swift in its movement, thematically revealing in its composition and playful in its use of focus pulls. The imagery of The Handmaiden is mysterious and provocative (in more ways than one), frequently hinting at undercurrents of dread and stifling sensuality. While perhaps not quite as visually inventive as previous works from the director, the more classical approach contrasts nicely with the decidedly transgressive plot components.
And speaking to that notion of sensuousness, The Handmaiden is positively dripping with eroticism — perhaps excessively so. In addition to a sensuous lesbian romance, the film includes such things as sadomasochism and creepy pornographic literature parties with bizarre marionette-based “performances.” Close-ups that are impossible to misinterpret dominate these moments, heightening sexual tension. Meanwhile, the passionate moans of the extended sex sequences freely drift into the scenes that follow them, overlapping in such a way that suggests a lingering suppressed desire.
Despite the overwhelming passion of the sexual elements, the film comes off as emotionally cold. Sex defines the central relationship and although it contributes to a theme of control and female liberation that pervades the visuals and plot details, one can’t help but feel a little detached from the main couple. However, if the prevailing sentiments of cold-blooded deception and violent depravity are any indication, maybe we aren’t meant to get all that emotionally attached in the first place. After all, Park has never been mistaken for the warm-and-fuzzy type with regards to how he molds his protagonists.
The Handmaiden is not going to appeal to most who are unfamiliar with the bleakly humorous, morally anarchic tendencies of Park Chan-wook, but for the fans, the film will satisfy. It showcases all of the director’s strengths through a fresh story that is ripe for repeated viewings and deeper analysis. Come for the aesthetic pleasures and erotic vibrancy, stay for the idiosyncrasies and subtle mindfucks.
4 out of 5 stars