Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung
Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon
Producer: Park Chan-wook and Syd Lim
by Jon Cvack
The Handmaiden departs from the dark and flashy style Chan-Wook Park is best known for. The last film I saw from Park was Sympathy for Lady Vengeance back in 2014. I didn’t remember much in terms of his style specifics, but I expected The Handmaiden to provide the same grit.
There’s a strange style of filmmaking that I struggle to label - a kind of epic period piece coming-of-age storytelling. Amarcord (1973), Life is Beautiful (1997), The Color Purple (1985), A Very Long Engagement (2004), and Phantom Thread (2017) are the first to come to mind; often involving a director at the top of their game who finally has the budget to express their full imagination.
Not knowing what this film was about, the intro immediately immerses you into the mystery. We’re in Japanese-occupied Korea and follow a Japanese rich heiress Lady/Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who lives in a gigantic and beautiful mansion, half designed by the English and the other half by Japan. We then move into a band of street criminals, ranging in age and expertise, crafting everything from counterfeit money to the perfect pick pocket. The leader Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) decides to try and con his way into marrying Lady Hideko, send her to an insane asylum and then pocket all her money. He is their newest and youngest member, the seemingly innocent and beautiful Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri). Somehow Sook-hee gets into the position of Lady Hideko’s handmaiden; immediately falling in love. Lady Hideko immediately picks up on the attraction and the pair have their first sexual encounter.
Counter Fujiwara then arrives shortly after and attempts to woo over Hideko. While I’m a bit confused over how both he and Sook-hee got to their respective positions, the frenetic style made me buy it, and so begins a love triangle as Sook-hee further develops her feelings and passion.
The narrative then shifts in time, which is done in a jarring and yet smart way (when I correctly followed), in which when Sook-hee and Count Fujiwara take Hideko to the insane asylum to pull of the con for Fujiwara to reverse course, and have convinced the hospital that Sook-hee is actually Lady Hideko.
The next two parts of the films help explain this grand con; taking place years earlier with Lady Hideko having some weird uncle that reads her sadistic sexual fantasies; some involving a giant squid. To be honest, around here I failed to keep track of the overall details. I was left with some of the most beautiful and unique images I’ve seen in a long time - of a person having sex with a Human sized wood partner and rich men watching on in tuxedos; of one of the most sensual and beautiful sex scenes I can recall of this decade; of the gothic mansion and green parks; of the octopus illustrations and the same animal in the acquarium, oozing out
Another viewing will connect the timeline, and yet, like any great storyteller, the images alone piece together the story. It’s an epic tale of love across two women, battling against male forces that hope to preserve them as objects, using them at their pleasure. I’m not familiar with the conflict between Korea and Japan, and somehow Chan-Wook Park communicates the metaphor. There is the desire for free and open love versus tyrannical subjugation. I suspect the countries underwent a similar struggle. Chan-Wook Park creates the perfect kind of cinema - the need to return and the excitement for the day.
BELOW: A taste of the images
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