It’s a new Park Chan-wook movie! It’s an adaptation of a fairly famous Literary Thriller! With Boobies and sex! It’s getting pretty good reviews! So I was fairly bored by the pretty and sterile “Stoker”, but this is a film I just have to see and no doubt love right? Let’s see.
So, in “The Handmaiden” we are taken back to Japanese occupied 1930’s Korea, where a great con is in progress. Talented pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent by conman extraordinaire “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) to become the maid of fragile heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko is betrothed to her creepy uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), but the Count wants to use Sook-hee to help him seduce Hideko, marry her, gain control over her inheritance and then commit her to an insane asylum. Sook-hee is up for the task, as she likes money and sparkly things. However, what she didn’t count on was actually getting feelings for Hideko, which lead her to getting less comfortable with the plan. But then the real details of the con are revealed, leaving Sook-hee in a totally compromised state. Somewhere along the way though, a genuine bond was formed between the two women, and more twists and turns are on the way. Via literary porn, a little S&M and a much bigger octopus than Choi Min-sik would ever be able to eat in one sitting.
Inspired by (rather than based on) Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith”, this is about as lavish and well-shot a movie as you’ll see. Though coming from Park Chan-wook, that side of things is pretty much expected as a default. Moving the story from Victorian England to 1930’s occupied Korea works perfectly. The first act plays the story out pretty much as the source novel, but starts to go down its own path in the second and especially the third acts. That’s fine in my eyes, it still tells a complex and intriguing story that wraps up rather satisfyingly.
There probably isn’t as much sex as you might have been led to believe – it is mostly a mix of a couple of well shot (except for one thing, which I will get to later) naked sapphic moments, and a bunch of dirty old men seemingly getting aroused over a woman reading some dirty stories out loud. I guess in the context of the time it is set in, that is perfectly fine, just be aware for most of the near 2 ½ hour funning time people leave their clothes on.
The lesbian scenes are well done (even if the most erotic scene is the one in the bath where Sook-hee uses a thimble to wear down a rough edge of Hideko’s tooth), although the eroticism is basically destroyed with a vagina-eye-view that just comes across as silly both times it is used.
And this repeated shot motif is what made me really struggle with the movie. Whilst the second act is designed to make us view the events of the first from a different perspective, Park also decides to constantly bombard us with scenes being followed up with the same scene being shown to us again with a little more information. It’s clever, but it gets wearing on this viewers attention, and means that the whole set up takes a lot longer than it needs too.
Newcomer Kim Tae-ri is excellent, giving her all in her debut big screen role, bringing energy, humour and emotion to the film. Kim Min-hee is brilliantly haughty, a perfect bit of casting. Nudity and lesbianism isn’t something that many top Korean actresses would be happy to do, but her credentials as both an indie and mainstream actress allow her to pull it off. Ha Jung-woo is great too, though Jo Jin-woong’s creepy pervert uncle character is maybe a little too comedic – even in the bloody final scenes. Indeed, the black humour on display varies in its effectiveness for me, leading to a tonal imbalance that lessened the impact of the film.
“The Handmaiden” is probably the best thing Park has done since “Lady Vengeance”, and stylistically it reminded me very much of the opening act of that film. The plot is suitably solid and twisty enough to make the wider con(s) on display enjoyable to viewers who are both aware and unaware of the source material. Performances are all round excellent. And the sex side of things is mostly done well. I liked it a lot. It’s Highly Recommended. But… despite all these plus point I wasn’t completely entranced by it. Park is a great stylist. He deals brilliantly with the darker side of human nature. And in Hideko and Sook-hee I think he brings a believable lesbian relationship to the screen. I’m just not sure that the black comedy always works, especially in the middle sequence when we are fundamentally looking at child abuse. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.