Park Chan-Wook's most accessible work to date, The Handmaiden provides a fantastically complex plot, visual flourish to spare and a world that is populated by wonderfully realised characters.
Director Park Chan-Wook is a bit of an oddity. Having been widely recognised in Korea for his Vengeance films, he became a somewhat ‘gateway’ for Korean cinema to bridge across into western mainstream with his most famous work Oldboy. Since then, he has helmed English-Language gothic drama Stoker written by Prison Break‘s leading man Wentworth Miller and then disappeared. Come 2016, the Korean auteur returned to the big screen with his adaptation of Sarah Waters novel The Fingersmith, which in turn was a loose adaptation of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. In short, his return to mainstream audiences wasn’t a conventional one, but being himself, a conventional return to the big screen would’ve hardly been expected.
The Handmaiden, written by frequent collaborator Seo-kyeong Jeong and Chan-Wook himself, follows the plot of a Korean pickpocket who’s hired by a Korean con-man posing as a Japanese count in order to trick a Japanese heiress out of her large inheritance. If you have to read that sentence a couple times, that should give you a slight indication to the labyrinth of a film that you’re walking into when viewing this. The convoluted, twisty story is one that in book form poses a far easier task to convey rather than having to visually impart all the details into a cohesive and engaging narrative.
In this aspect, Park Chan-Wook provides some of his most fantastic and approachable work, which is no mean feat. Not only did he give himself the task of adapting a story that was already complex in it’s structure, he shifted the setting of the events from victorian Britain to 1930’s Japanese-occupied Korea. Thus, the emphasis on culture and character and the world that his pawns operate in become increasingly important when mapping out his story. Each of his characters have such clear and distinct personalities and motivation for their actions that they drive the narrative into directions that would otherwise seem completely ludicrous had it not been for the strong work that went into them. From a directoral standpoint, he couldn’t have painted it any better. His control on the characters and the script allow for it’s revelations and shocks to have a profound affect on you. Furthermore, this control allows him to indulge in some visual mastery without losing the audience with its style. Simply put, this is one of the most visually stunning and interesting films to have been released in the UK thus far. The set design and costumes are engrossing and sumptuous, harkening back to the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures that this adaptation came to fruition from. Equally, the cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon is marvellous to behold from scenes in which the characters are simply conversing to the more challenging, sensual images.
There’s a point around midway through the movie where the story practically does a full 180 degree turn and completely flips the meaning of the events that proceeded it and despite the mastery of Chan-wook’s direction and script, it would’ve fallen incredibly flat had it not been for the brilliance of his actors. Kim Tae-ri as the titular handmaiden, displays a fantastically layered performance. It’s her balanced and nuanced (not to mention brave) understanding of the character that together with Kim Min-hee, provide the beating heart to the film. The innocence and somewhat childlike naivety of her character Sook-hee anchors the film’s outlandish twists with a believably emotional core. Similarly, Kim Min-hee’s portrayal of the Japanese heiress is at times cold and impenetrable but as the layers are stripped away, becomes deeply understandable and heartbreaking. Their two performances combined alleviate the film from what could have been an aesthetically beautiful but ultimately trashy erotic thriller, to an unconventionally gorgeous and romantic character study. Outside of these two perfomances, Ha Jung-woo as the handsome but conniving faux Count is equally watchable and the Jo Jing-woong as the depraved, repulsive uncle is somewhat cartoonish in its villainy but integral to the plot.
Despite being a fantastically realised world, and a visual treat, The Handmaiden isn’t without its flaws. The 145 minute runtime is highly indulgent and would’ve been better served with some tighter editing in its third act. Similarly, just as his previous work provided some pretty shocking images to comprehend, when Chan-wook does delve into the more explicit aspects of the film, however prettily he frames them, they again appeal to his more indulgent side. However, if you can swallow those aspects of the film, you’ll be treated to one of the most fascinating and enthralling dramas to grace western shores from the far east.
The Handmaiden (2017), directed by Park Chan-Wook, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Eye. Certificate 18.