Director: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo
“Kinky as a coiled rope” was one of the juicier and more memorable press clippings that came attached to Peter Strickland’s sensual lesbian drama The Duke Of Burgundy a couple of years ago and it’s a soundbite that one might happily apply to Park Chan-Wook’s latest, which sees the director returning to Korean soil for perhaps his most self-aware work yet. Over the last two decades Park has made a name for himself worldwide for his variety of slick, overtly stylised cinema in which his camera darts and roves to the point of distraction, moving daringly through his scenes like an interloper; an invisible contortionist whose wily moves evoke our rapturous applause. These art-house pyrotechnics are his brand, if you will. And, like Tarantino, he is only too happy to indulge himself for our wicked pleasure.
And that’s certainly most fitting here, in a story that delights in wicked pleasures and which is gleefully welcoming of voyeurism and indulgence at every turn.
An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’ (I suspect a rather loose one at that), The Handmaiden has a multi-strand narrative that delights in changing perspective on us in order to reveal new information. Presented in three acts, we begin by focusing on the titular character, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri); a penniless pickpocket who takes an assumed name in order to play handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) at the behest of supposed-master-swindler Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Sook-hee is his ‘inside man’ so to speak, placed in Lady Hideko’s company to steer her toward accepting his proposal of marriage. The kicker? By wedding Hideko, Fujiwara stands to inherent a small fortune… just as soon as his new bride is binned off to an insane asylum. And disinterestedly lurking behind all is Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), the man who raised Hideko but for whom time is better spent obsessing over his venerated collection of erotic fictions as he repeatedly daubs his tongue black with ink.
The first (but by no means last) twist in the tale is that Sook-hee very quickly becomes enamoured with Lady Hideko herself, and in preparing her new mistress for her secret master, Sook-hee becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair, one that threatens to capsize all plans… but perhaps not in the manner you’re expecting. True, once Park starts revealing the slipperiness of the plot, its hard not to spend time trying to get two steps ahead of him again, but one of the pleasures of The Handmaiden is how welcomingly Park invites the audience to get involved.
The aforementioned voyeurism that has been the cornerstone of his output is the best way into The Handmaiden. Barely ten minutes go by without someone prying or peering or peeping into somebody else’s private – and often illicit – business. This is a fiendish little story filled with secret blind spots. Park ensures that the characters on the screen are having as much fun as the audience as they circle one another, plotting move and counter-move. Uncle Kouzuki is perhaps the only person here who is blithely showing his true face at all times; an impotent pervert and monster who doesn’t shy away from his own vices or deficiencies of character. Everyone else is part of Park’s delicious little spiderweb. The intricacy of the plot is what makes it so enjoyable. In effect this is an erotic farce, and Park isn’t shy about allowing the audience to laugh at the jokes. The Handmaiden is his funniest film to date.
The menfolk are beaten down by the women here. From Kouzuki’s aforementioned feebleness to a moment in which Sook-hee derides Fujiware for the size of his penis, it’s very clear that Park relishes the manner in which masculinity is belittled in his film. This goes some way to medicining any sense of exploitation felt during the extensive girl-on-girl sex scenes, which are presented by Park with all the lurid gratuity he’s become known for. Yet The Handmaiden is very frank about sex and it’s inclusion here is key, not just as a way of expressing love, but as a method of dominance and deception. And while the end game may reveal Park as something of a romantic at heart, he’s canny enough to undercut this sentiment by employing one of his other famed trademarks; bloody brutality.
If Park’s films generally have an undoing, it is that their technical bravura can mask a paucity of depth. When his last film Stoker hit UK shores, I lavished it with praise, and much of this was generated by the film’s undeniable aesthetic brilliance, yet the film hasn’t aged well (not least since I’ve seen Alfred Hitchock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, a film Wentworth Miller’s screenplay owes a conspicuous debt). Park has a habit of making an audience swoon upfront, only to leave our appetites achingly unfulfilled once we’ve regained our composure. The Handmaiden, however, feels as though it won’t succumb to the same fate. Granted, I’m still in the honeymoon phase with this one, but it feels like his most accomplished film since Old Boy or maybe even Sympathy For Mr Vengeance.
As with the aforementioned Tarantino, Park seems happy to indulge himself. The key difference, perhaps, is that Park doesn’t forget to take the audience along with him. The Handmaiden is long (I saw the extended edition as well, which pushes close to three hours), but – one laborious scene right in the middle aside – it doesn’t feel long. Part of that must come from the restless, ever-playful narrative, but a larger part is surely down to how readily Park asks his viewers to participate, and how inviting he makes the prospect. A thriller that’s genuinely thrilling. An erotic film that’s genuinely erotic. A farce that’s frequently funny. The Handmaiden tries to be a lot of things and, to its great credit, accomplishes them all.