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Review: The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s latest film The Handmaiden is a spellbindingly erotic thriller that seems equally aware of its flaws as it is of its excesses. We need films like this that are daring enough to take style to the limit, to push ideas to their dizzying limits, and we need directors like Park Chan-wook who are willing to make them with such elegance.

The story, which runs over three parts and 144 minutes (167 minutes for the director’s cut), follows Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), hired as the handmaiden of the fragile Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), living in an isolated countryside estate with her sinister uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). This is all a set up to a bigger plot devised by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), who aims to seduce Hideko, take her sizeable fortune and lock her away in a madhouse. Based on the novel The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and rendering it to life in the settings of 1930s Japan and Japanese-occupied Korea, the subtitles colour coded between the two languages. This social context provides a deeper metaphor for class difference and muddy cultural heritage, the tensions between the two coming to a head in some of the film’s exchanges.

True to form, Chan-wook twists and turns his story in unexpected directions, once again casting an unremitting eye to extremity, and crafting some truly despicable characters to squirm at. However, no matter the depravity on display there is no doubting the masterful composition of this film – camera angles offer unexpected surprises whilst the secluded Georgian-Japanese-style manor is brought to life with a vibrancy and mystery by Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. There’s an eroticism permeating the entire film here in the smallest details, the glances of the characters. Chan-wook shoots his two female leads in a way that might be accused of perpetuating the male gaze, but he ultimately empowers them. The central characters here are realised with such brilliant performances and written with such depth that by the end of the film, you’re left with an indelible impression of a vision that is as much ridiculous as it is brilliant.

It was Oldboy in 2003 that gave Chan-wook his reputation as one of international cinema’s bad boys; part of the Vengeance trilogy that also included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), these were films who took liberties to break the shock boundary of their audiences, combining arthouse sensibility with themes that are investigated to an uncomfortable degree. The Handmaiden continues along this trajectory, employing some of the themes from Chan-wook’s English language debut Stoker (2013) to boot and coming together as one of those films that you just don’t get to see in cinemas that often. Rarely are we given the opportunity to see such a director given total access to the toolbox. The film has its flaws: it is long, the final act hangs together loosely with the rest of the film. But The Handmaiden is a sumptuous treat of cinema, and it deserves to be relished.

The Handmaiden is in cinemas across the UK now. Image source: Filmedinether.com