Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden
Domestic service is a full-contact,
no-holds-barred endeavor in Korean cinema. It goes back to 1960, when the title
character terrorized a middle-class respectability-craving family in Kim
Ki-young’s The Housemaid. In 2010, Im
Sang-soo turned the tables in favor of the wealthy elite with his in-name-only
remake. Now we journey back to occupied 1930 Korea, where a rigid class system
is still very much intact. However, viewers should make no assumptions
regarding who has the upper hand in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Sook-hee adapted rather well when she was
adopted into an Oliver Twistian family of pickpockets and con artists, so she
readily agrees when “Count Fujiwara,” a fake Japanese nobleman, recruits her
for a caper. She will go undercover as the cloistered Lady Hideko’s latest
maid. After gaining her Lady’s trust, Sook-hee will help Fujiwara seduce and
marry her, so he can abscond with her inheritance after committing her to an
insane asylum. Yet, much to the surprise of both women, a romantic attraction slowly
boils over between them. In fact, Sook-hee considers warning Lady Hideko about
her eventual fiancé’s intentions, until she suddenly finds herself committed to
the asylum in Hideko’s place.
Furious at their betrayal, Sook-hee vows
to avenge herself on her lover and her accomplice. End of part one. There will
be two more parts, each featuring plenty of further curve balls. Part two backs
up, establishing Lady Hideko’s backstory and showing us the key events of Sook-hee’s
downfall from her perspective. By the time we get to part three, all bets are
It is fair to say Handmaiden is inspired by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Part one tracks pretty
closely with the source novel, but parts two and three are almost entirely the
creation of Park and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung. The twists and
counter-twists come faster than the double- and triple-crosses, which makes it
all greatly entertaining.
Yet, perhaps the most shocking thing about
Handmaiden (especially as a Korean
film) is its sexual explicitness. At times, it resembles Blue is the Warmest Color, but with a plot—in this case, one cribbed
from Dangerous Liaisons and The Sting. This film will often leave
you slack-jawed, but for very different reasons.
Nationwide talent search discovery Kim
Tae-ri is indeed quite the find as Sook-hee. She is all kinds of intense, in
all the ways you might imagine. Kim Min-hee perfectly counter-balances her with
her commanding ice queen presence (when she thaws, the film gets steamy enough
to scald the skin). Ha Jung-woo continues to display remarkable range and flexibility,
this time around oozing sleaze from every pore as the caddish Fujiwara.
Depending on how you look at it, The Handmaiden is deliciously fun, in
spite of, or on top of (so to speak) the extended love-making scenes. This is
definitely one of those “you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet” kind of films. It is also
a lush, gorgeous spectacle, thanks to the exquisitely crafted period sets and
trappings, as well as Chung Chung-hoon’s rich, painterly cinematography. This
is a sweeping, gauntlet-spiking statement from a bold auteur, but it is also a
rip-roaring example of storytelling. Very highly recommended for mature
audiences, The Handmaiden opens this
Friday (10/21) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.
Labels: Korean Cinema, Park Chan-wook