The Handmaiden, 2016
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, young con-woman Sook-Hee is hired to be a wealthy heiress’s handmaiden at an isolated countryside estate. Joining forces with a fellow thief, she plans to swindle the heiress out of her fortune, only to run into complications when she falls head-first into a passionate lesbian love affair. Adapted from Sarah Walter’s novel Fingersmith.
It seems pretty strange to be describing Park Chan-wook’s latest film as a period drama based on a historical novel by a British author. The Korean fan-favourite, a veteran of Asian Extreme cinema since even before hitting the big time with modern crime classic Oldboy back in 2003, seems to usually find himself chasing much more eccentric ideas, in much more eccentric settings. Rest assured though, whilst the first act of The Handmaiden may initially appear a little more vanilla than the director’s usual fare, by its climax it’s sure to be just as stark raving bonkers as all his others combined.
Finding himself back in Korea once more, following the slightly stiff reception to his first American effort Stoker, Park seems infinitely more comfortable. Despite the historical setting and the much more detailed world-building that swallows most of the film’s opening, there’s a definite glimmer of his dark personality here, right from the off. As much as he quickly knits in plenty of tension, there’s always the slightest hint of black humour trailing not far behind, making for an entertaining twist on an otherwise much dryer genre.
If you’re looking for a more approachable, by-the-books adaptation of Sarah Walter’s famed novel, you won’t so much be leaving the theatre disappointed as you will be fleeing it half-way through, no doubt in tears, because as much as Park follows the book’s often racy content, he throws in his own unusual twists along the way too.
Clearly chopped up into the three designated ‘Part’s of the novel, by the time The Handmaiden reaches its final section, we’re very much in classic Park territory, complete with the expected blood, guts, and ever-so-slightly uncomfortable sexual violence. True, it’s all much more alluded-to than explicitly shown this time around (perhaps an attempt by the Korean to attract a maturer reputation), but the impact still sticks. There’s elements of the final reveals here that are guaranteed to induce the usual squirms.
Obviously this isn’t a bad thing by any means; Park’s boldness is arguably one of his most celebrated cinematic tools, but it’s definitely something the artier crowd will no doubt have to get used to if he is to graduate away from the extreme genre fans he’s been catering for for over a decade now.
On a much more technical level there’s plenty to praise about The Handmaiden too: regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is as gorgeous as ever; delicate where it matters and fantastically pulpy in equal measure. The cast deliver some pretty brave content with entirely straight and detailed performances and Park himself ties it all together into the period setting relatively effortlessly.
From a pacing perspective there’s a few issues. By the time the film jumps into its second section, the twist in tone and viewpoint can feel a little jarring, as can the initial introduction of some of the more extreme elements, and at a rather extravagant 2 hours 24 minutes there’s definitely room for a little more trimming in places.
The Handmaiden is certainly not Park’s best, but in all honesty, it’s not hugely far away from it either. His return to Korea was a solid decision, and from both a technical and entertainment standpoint, there’s an awful lot to love here. But by wading into much more scholarly waters, he does throw a lot of his trademark extremity into question. There’s just enough for both his old-school fans and festival appreciators to get on board with overall, but it’s unlikely that either will really praise it whole-heartedly.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★