(South Korea 2016)
“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden [아가씨], but I’m glad I got to see it. One word: wow! A sexy, complex, and intriguing film to say the least, it’s a lavish visual and narrative cinematic experience. The trailer offers only a hint of what awaits.
Park wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung. They change the setting from Victorian Era Britain to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese colonial rule before the end of World War II. Confession: I did not read the book. The change is brilliant, though, resulting in something far more tense, exotic, and erotic than I imagine it would have been had they stuck to the original concept.
The Handmaiden is a cutthroat tale of power, sex, and deception in the same vein as Dangerous Liasons, though by no means is it the same story. The title refers to “Tamako” (Kim Tae-ri), a young common girl hired to serve as a maid to mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) runs the household, which has a crazy library of antique erotica and a basement used for punishment. The atmosphere is abusive and weird. So much so, in fact, that Lady Hideko’s aunt committed suicide—and she still hears her voice at night.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
“Tamako” has a secret: she’s really Sook-hee, a master pickpocket from a long line of con artists. Sook-hee is working with Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a dashing con man, on an elaborate scam to bilk Lady Hideko out of her fortune. Fujiwara, posing as a Count, is wooing Lady Hideko into marriage, after which he plans to commit her to her an insane asylum and take off with her money. Fujiwara has a secret, too: he’s double dealing with Lady Hideko, who wants to get away from her uncle. Their plot involves getting married, cashing out her inheritance, and committing her illiterate maid under her name, after which Lady Hideko assumes the identity of “Tamako”—while keeping her money, of course.
The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and nothing here is what it seems. Things get interesting and go another route when the two women’s relationship takes a sexual turn, and they like it.
The Handmaiden is an example of near perfect execution. The beginning and end are a little slow, but what’s in between is well worth the slightly draggy bookends. Divided into three parts, it tells the story from the different perpectives of the three scammers. We get more information with each part, and just when it looks like we know what’s coming—bam!, the proverbial rug is pulled out from underneath and the narrative goes somewhere else. The characters are really complex, and the acting here is excellent. The sex scenes are sensual but often have a humorous undertone. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is rich and layered with thoughtful camerawork that adds a nice voyeuristic touch to the whole film, liberally using long shots and peeking through doors and around screens. This is a film you can easily get lost in.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+