Director: Park Chan-Wook
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Hae-sook Kim, Kim Tae-ri
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Based on the 2002 Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s Palme d’Or contender, The Handmaiden, is a mystery romance by way of Anaïs Nin-like erotica. For some, the cocktail of melodrama and raunchy lesbian sex scenes will lead to accusations of kitsch and superficiality, but that is to underestimate the inner workings of the movie and overlook its overall cleverness.
To dismiss the film as potboiler trash with smoking hot sex scenes, like it’s a feature-length episode of The Red Shoes Diaries, is to ignore a key feminist message about women fighting against a strict patriarchal society and sicko men who treat them like dirt. There is a hint of fairy tale about The Handmaiden, too. It’s full of archetypal figures and, without giving too much away, features a hero, a princess trapped in a castle and a big bad villain who must be vanquished.
Sure, the bedroom action risks the charge of being a bit of a softcore thrill, but they’re profoundly beautiful and thematically important, when contrasted with other scenes featuring a group of upper-class gentleman listening to dirty stories read by a young woman groomed into her position. They savour mucky details, but Countess Hideko and her maid are in love and filled with joy and passion. It’s a source of profound pleasure the men would fail to comprehend or find disinteresting. They just want to get their rocks off to pornographic tales.
Keeping the novel’s three-part structure, but switching the story from Victorian London to 1930s colonial Korea, then under Japanese rule, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a young and attractive pickpocket, masquerading as a house servant to con a wealthy, but socially isolated, heiress (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune. Along with a Japanese thug pretending to be a nobleman and art connoisseur, their convoluted plan is met with resistance, when Sook-hee begins to fall in love with her target. Twists and turns continually pull the rug from under the audience and Park Chan-wook has managed these twists deftly. The use of flashbacks, too, far from being a cheap narrative device, serve to enrich and heighten earlier scenes marked by either cruel acts or startling revelations.
The Handmaiden chiefly plays out in a quirkily designed manor house – a traditional-looking English country pile with an added Japanese wing – which is straight out of a gothic horror film, but also echoes with the film’s themes of identity and double-crossing. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, working with the director for the sixth time, lights the sets very beautifully. For exteriors, the photography has a dreamy desaturated paleness. The look, certainly those ravishing interiors, can best be summed up as ‘velvety’; somehow heightened and expressionistic, but still pertaining to a realism of location and period setting.
If you’re a Park Chan-wook fan, you’ll know what you’re in for: delicious camera movements, precise editing, gorgeous compositions and intoxicating imagery. During one bedroom session, the naked lovers lock into a 69 position, whereupon they resemble a living Henry Moore sculpture. The use of close-ups – eyes stealing quick glances, delicate hands on soft, naked flesh or lips quivering with anticipation of a kiss – whip up an erotic fervour a world away from cheap smut.
Park Chan-wook’s latest won’t pick up any prizes at Cannes, but it’s a fantastic piece of work spearheaded by two excellently played performances by Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee. The Handmaiden is more than an empty softcore drama full of scamming, backstabbing and wild sex: it’s a work of art.
The Handmaiden is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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The Handmaiden was one of five films acquired by Amazon Studios that screened at Cannes 2016. For more of our Cannes coverage, click here.