Cannes Film Review: ‘The Handmaiden’

The Handmaiden Cannes
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Park Chan-wook's Korean interpretation of Sarah Waters' "Fingersmith" is clever, heady and sensually lavish to a fault.

Boasting more tangled plots and bodies than an octopus has tentacles, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a bodice-ripper about a pickpocket who poses as a maid to swindle a sequestered heiress. His first Korean-language fiction feature since 2009’s “Thirst,” it’s sybaritic, cruel and luridly mesmerizing.

Freely transposing Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set romantic thriller “Fingersmith” to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonialism, Park initially takes the tale of calculation, seduction and betrayal to heady narrative heights. Before long, however, the director of such extreme revenge thrillers as “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and “Oldboy” slides back into his own febrile cinematic universe of eroticized torture and misogyny, rather submerging Waters’ theme of female rebellion and liberation. Not that this should impair the film’s marketing potential in any way: Commercial and arthouse audiences alike will either thrill to its stylized potboiler elements or swoon over the opiate influence of Park’s signature aesthetic beauty.

Park’s adaptation, co-written with Chung Seo-kyung, retains the novel’s triptych structure. Book One, the most faithful to the original, is narrated by Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an orphaned girl raised as a pickpocket by human trafficker Boksun. A Korean gold-digger (Ha Jung-woo), posing as Japanese count Fujiwara, plucks her from the slums to aid him in the seduction of Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress living under the stewardship of her Korean uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Fujiwara’s plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, then commit her to a mental asylum so he can pocket her inheritance.

As the common Sook-hee is ushered into this magnificent colonial estate, her bewildered exploration of the Gothic mise-en-scène echoes the mysterious atmospherics of Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak.” Hideko’s languorous, marble-surfaced beauty quickly dissolves under the new maid’s wide-eyed cheerfulness, and a bathing scene brims with furtive eroticism fueled by an aching tooth and a lollipop.

Park elegantly plays their innocent dressing-up and role-switching rituals against the real, pernicious deceit of Fujiwara, as newcomer Kim Tae-ri makes her gradual change of heart passionately palpable. The only defect, one that sometimes risks taking viewers out of the story, is the ensemble’s evident struggle to deliver sophisticated old-world Japanese dialogue, which somewhat hampers their spontaneity of expression.

Book Two tells the same story from Hideko’s vantage point, involving a major twist that viewers unfamiliar with the novel would be hard pressed to see coming. It’s also where the screenplay veers notably from the source, virtually writing out Boksun’s role and the secrets of the women’s birth.

What it instead chooses to highlight and expand is the young lady’s traumatic childhood upbringing by her uncle and aunt (Moon So-ri, cast strikingly against type). Inside the mansion’s voluminous library, Kouzuki’s bibliophilia is revealed to have decidedly aberrant tendencies. Dabbling in the sadomasochism of Takashi Ishii’s “Flower and Snake” series with a touch of Teruo Ishii’s grotesque “porno jidaigeki” — 1970s sexploitation costume dramas — these scenes offer their share of prurient pleasure, yet moves the narrative further away from delicate affairs of the heart.

The third and final book, which shifts focus to Fujiwara’s plight, is giddy with more revelations and reversals. It is also has Park’s signature pain fetish gratuitously splashed over it: One scene adds a new, bloody layer of meaning to the novel’s title “Fingersmith,” while another even brings back a certain signature mollusc from “Oldboy” in monstrously depraved fashion. And while there’s no denying the denouement’s cleverness or the finale’s breathtaking, lyrical evocation of sapphic desire, one comes out feeling sensually satiated.

Production values are sensational even by Korean cinema’s blue-chip standards. The mansion’s interior, designed by Ryu Seong-hee, is decorated in hybrid British-Japanese style, combinng the former’s decorative luxuriance with the latter’s elegant symmetry. In his last film, the U.S.-set “Stoker,” Park became so carried away with the set of the retro American country house that he made it the centerpiece of a flimsily constructed family mystery. Here, he is in danger again of lingering on too much visual paraphernalia — even if that matches Waters’ equally dense textual details — but involving characters and a more substantially crafted plot maintain its artistic balance.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Handmaiden'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2016. Running time: 144 MIN. Original Title: "Agassi"

Production

(South Korea) A The Joker, BAC Films, CJ Entertainment presentation of a Moho Film, Yong Film production. (International sales: CJ Entertainment , Seoul.) Produced by Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim. Executive producers, Miky Lee. Co-producers, Yoon Suk-chan, Kim Jong-dae, Jeong Won-jo. Co-executive producer, Jeong Tae-sung.

Crew

Directed by Park Chan-wook. Screenplay, Chung Seo-kyung, Park, adapted from the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Chung Chung-hoon; editor, Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum; music, Cho Young-wuk; production designer, Ryu Seong-hee; costume designer, Cho Sang-kyung; sound (5.1 Ch.), Kim Suk-won; re-recording mixer, Jung Gun; visual effects supervisor, Lee Jeon-hyoung; visual effects, 4th Creative Party; associate producer, Jay Lee.

With

Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri.   (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

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  1. Why is this film misogynist? The two protagonists are strong, smart women who upend a male-dominated world with their love for each other and their smarts. Do the erotic scenes offend because they were directed by a man? This is a fantastic movie with a feminist streak and this puritanical review does not do it justice.

  2. iga says:

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  3. Sounds like the ultimate boys’ adolescent wet dream vav a keyhole view of girl on girl action where the females are just the viewers’ tools with no substance for their own lives. Talk about corrupting a author’s intention for empowering and supporting women. OF course it will be popular naked women, torture,and rape and misogyny never fail to sell the world over… e.g. Game of Thrones.

    • mtmaclean says:

      Riman is right. There is much ignorance in your comment. This is what the director had to say about directing the sex scenes in the movie in an interview with Esquire.

      “I had a set of principles in designing these sex scenes. I didn’t want them to come across from the perspective of the male gaze; these scenes shouldn’t objectify women’s bodies. And I didn’t want to shoot it in the way that it would appear like characters are there to relieve their sexual desires. In other words, if the scene involved a man, I didn’t want the point of the scene be about making the man ejaculate. I wanted to do a sex scene where the process is the joy of it—the kind of sex where you can feel the intimacy between the two characters, where it is, as you say, a game. Sex where you laugh a lot, talk a lot, and even cry sometimes.”

    • The ignorance in your comment, Caitlin…Have you even seen this movie? Judging without seeing it is really unfair, it explores a lot more than that, and yes it deals with “empowering and supporting women” underneath the extravagance of his cinematic style. Look up his other movies, and see how he portrays the female characters in them.

  4. Ferry Anolin says:

    an erotic film on homosexuality!

  5. wneal5796 says:

    And, it must be, by and by, far easier, and far easier, to see this and other such EXCELLENT film experiences…locally, in our OWN home towns, cities, hamlets, villages, etc. We’re so ill fed with pablum, we just can’t stomach any more.

  6. seus says:

    It’s actor Cho jin wong, not Kim jin woong for Kouzuki (uncle)

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