The Handmaiden

 

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A stylish and possibly controversial film offering a very mixed bag of ingredients.

 
Handmaiden, The
 

Having firmly established his name with films that were tough but stylish, it is no surprise that this latest film by Korea's Park Chan-wook should be visually impressive. The photography in colour and 'Scope by Chung Chung-loon takes full advantage of the distinguished production design. But in other respects the film is not what one might expect from Park even if, late on, it does contain a scene of torture. As so often, Park is writer as well as director to the extent that this screenplay is by him and his regular collaborator Chung Seo-kyung, but they are moving into new areas here.

 

Set in Korea in the 1930s when the country was under Japanese rule (and to that extent a companion piece to the recent action movie The Age of Shadows), The Handmaiden nevertheless grew out of admiration for the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters which told a story pertaining to Victorian England. As duly relocated  and told here, it's about a poor female pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is sent on a mission by Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a con man masquerading as a count. Her task is to become the handmaiden of the heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and to help influence her new mistress into accepting Fujiwara as her husband.

 

This tale is told in three sections (the last significantly shorter than the first two) and, if the overall tone is of melodrama, Part 1 plays at times in a way that invites laughs. But as the film progresses that aspect (possibly intentional) lessens while the plot becomes increasingly complex. That's not just because of revelations that shed fresh light on the roles being taken by the main characters but because of time jumps (Part 2, for example, begins earlier than the events of Part 1). Certain scenes replay with a new emphasis the second time around, but because the narrative is not easy to grasp this is less rewarding than it may sound.

 

Indeed, however effective the film may be in visual terms, one comes to question the merit of a story which carries echoes of such diverse works as Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White and Clouzot's film Les Diabloliques (1954). Furthermore, while it may be no surprise given the work's inspiration that lesbianism is involved, the fact that the film seeks to equal the sexual frankness of Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) fits uneasily with the pervading sense of melodrama while also clashing with the emphasis on perversion (the latter element involves Hideko's uncle (Cho Jin-woong) who likes to make children read out loud sexually explicit material). The film courts eroticism but creates a cold world lacking in real feeling. Consequently it falls far short of the emotional depth tapped by Peter Strickland in his lesbian drama The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Doubtless there will be those who describe The Handmaiden as a masterpiece, but for me watching it was a confusing and exasperating experience because it never coheres into an effective whole. But anyone who can relish a film purely for the look of it will undoubtedly rate this film far more highly than I have done.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri.

 

Dir Park Chan-wook, Pro Park Chan-wook and Syd Lim, Screenplay Chung Seo-kyung and Chan-wook Park, inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Ph Chung Chung-hoon, Pro Des Ryu Seong-hee, Ed Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum, Music Cho Young-wuk, Costumes Cho Sang-kyung.

 

CJ Entertainment/Moho Film & Yong Film/Pan Entertainment-Curzon Artificial Eye.
144 mins. Republic of Korea. 2016. Rel: 14 April 2017. Cert. 18.