Few films this year are likely to charge cinema auditoriums quite so electrically as Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Provocative, but uplifting. Sexualised, but by no means exploitative. Gorgeous, but never at the expense of dynamic substance. Don’t be dissuaded by the runtime, Chan-wook’s is a film so assured that it knows exactly how long it needs to be. Time really does fly in this spectacular feature.
An adaptation, of sorts, to Sarah Walters’s novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden tells its tale in three parts, with subversions and reformulations at every turn. Perspectives alternate in breathtaking ebbs and flows, each twist revealing new depth and detail, encapsulated by the sliding doors of the film’s own mise-en-scène. Whereas Waters’ story took Victorian Britain as its setting, Chan-wook relocates his update to 1930s South Korea, then under Japanese occupation. Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-he, the orphaned daughter of a master pickpocket – a trade she now calls her own. Ha Jung-woo is Count Fujiwara, a man intent on securing the wealth of Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), with no limits as to how far he’s prepared to go the get it. In the film, the Count recruits Sook-he to take the role of handmaiden to Lady Hideko, so that she might persuade her new mistress, living a life of seclusion under the watchful eye of her Uncle (Cho Jin-woong, also a drain on his niece’s fortunes), to elope with Fujiwara himself.
Particularly so within the opening act, The Handmaiden’s is a plot with an almost fairytale, fabulist feel to it. ‘I was able at the age of five,’ narrates Sook-he, ‘to tell a fake coin from a real’. The intricacies of its establishment and script cast spells of the Arabian Nights tales, whilst sumptuously vibrant cinematography and production design (not to mention a Rebecca-esque English-Gothic mansion attached to a traditional Japanese structure) recall even Beauty and the Beast. Further still, one motif sees Sook-he thrice lose her shoe; that the character is of humble background, and now in service, only confirms the associations with Cinderella that will come to fruition in the film’s soaring and uplifting denouement. Atop these European visual and thematic touchstones can be found similarly a stylistic nod to east-Asian works such as Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. That said, this is with no shadow of a doubt a Park Chan-wook – director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance – film. You’d be hard pressed to find many a Cinderella adaption that sees its titular heroine wind up (a phrase never more appropriate than in this context) with Lady Tremaine. Perhaps Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales?
The move to South Korea makes for a fitting translation as though it were always meant to be. Adding the historical context of Japanese-rule adds to the story an extra layer of depth, visualising and making metaphor of its heroines’ entrapments. ‘The sun never shines here. Uncle wouldn’t allow it’ sighs Hideko. Likewise, the characters osmose fluidly between Korean and Japanese (coloured subtitles signal the importance to English speaking viewers), representative of both physical and psychological conditions.
As churlishly British as it is to say, do try not to enter The Handmaiden unaware of the intense erotica that awaits you within it. Bedroom scenes aside, the film is not simply infused with an frisson of sexuality, but entirely evocative of it. In one scene, involving a thimble, bathtub dentistry is transformed into a passionately steamy analogy for aural sex, whilst, later, a still life painting sequence overflows with virginal iconography by way of flowers and ripening peaches. The line of voyeurism is always a fine one when it comes to cinema as vivid as this, but its one well navigated by Chan-wook, whose script (co-written by Chung Seo-kyung) was apparently meticulous in the minutiae of descriptive choreography. The result is at once intimate and honest. Any notion of discomfort you might feel is surely evidential of the characters’ independence from the spectatorial eye.
A long-term collaborator of Chan-wook, Cho Young-wuk’s score too is beautifully handled; and, oh, so subtly so. When Young-wuk’s instrumental does fade it is only to be replaced the orchestral symphony of fabric materiality which subsumes the diegesis. With each undone button, each lace string pulled tight and silken corset stroked, I shivered at the sheer musicality overwhelming my ears. A word here also must be granted to Sang-gyeong Jo’s stunning costume design – integral to an overall production which is magnificently and fluidly intertwined.
Chan-wook’s cast too are excellent, with Min-hee fabulously conveying dichotomous personalities and emotions, whilst Tai-ri gives a performance which is refreshingly naïve. To say much more, however, runs the risk of ruining the many surprises of a film which seeks to wrong-foot you with every twist. Never be fooled into believing that what you are shown is ever as simple as it seems. Frames are hugely significant throughout, direction and script alike supplying and refusing information with sly intent. Often mirrors emphasise physical and psychological distances between characters, whilst frequently reminding of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait – a painting similarly imbued with hidden and crafted meanings, along with a coy awareness of the nature of representation.
As dark as it is joyfully liberating, at the very least The Handmaiden offers all transfixing visuals and spotless performances. Perhaps too strong for some, for others Chan-wook’s latest is a triumphant breath of the sweetest of fresh air.