Park Chan-Wook’s latest tale, based on a Victorian-set novel by Sarah Waters, has elements of perhaps Brokeback Mountain with a dash of Rashomon or even Zhang Yimou’s Hero in terms of its storytelling.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Nam Sookhee has been hired by Count Fujiwara, a conman pretending to be a nobleman, to pose as the new handmaiden for the nobel Lady Hideko. The plan is for Sookhee to convince Lady Hideko to fall for the fraudulent nobleman so he can get his hands on her inheritance from her uncle Kouzuki, an avid collector of classic erotica novels, in which he forces Hideko to read and act out in front of an elite group of noblemen.
However, as Sookhee, who becomes Tamako, begins to plan out her mission, she soon finds herself attracted to Lady Hideko. When Fujiwara constantly advances on her, Hideko turns to Sookhee for advice and one fateful night, Hideko and Sookhee engage in a torrid love affair. Sookhee soon learns that she was actually a pawn in Fujiwara’s ultimate plan involving Hideko, who actually may be in cahoots with the fraudulent count as a measure of revenge against Kouzuki, who plans to actually marry his own niece to gain the family inheritance. Through the points of view from both Sookhee and Hideko, dark pasts and secret all reveal a shocking climax.
The name Park Chan-Wook is not one without controversy as it pertains to his films. Some may even call him Korea’s answer to Takashi Miike, who has had his own share of controversial material but as of late, has tamed down his style to direct live action adaptations of manga and anime series. Park’s most well known international film Oldboy, made in 2003, had an incestuous twist to the plot that made audiences cringe alongside the brutal violence of the film. Thirst, made in 2009, had a priest turned sex-starved vampire that also gain notoriety as well as the Vengeance films.
With his latest film, he adapted the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith and changed the setting from Victorian-era England to Japanese-occupied Korea around the 1930’s. Along with co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung, Park has crafted a brilliant tale involving the world of classic Asian erotica and churns out a story of revenge and redemption between the two female lead characters. To distinguish the two, Park and Chung split the film in three parts, bringing to mind shades of Rashomon and Hero.
The first part focuses on the point of the view from the titular Handmaiden, played by Kim Tae-Ri. As a con artist who can tell real from fakes, she seems to be fully cooperative with the plan to exploit Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-Hee. The chemistry between these two is well done with the two central male characters, Ha Jung-Woo’s conman Fujiwara and Cho Jin-Woong’s Uncle Koizuki as two of the biggest and arrogant scumbags ever. The latter definitely will never earn a Father of the Year award, especially as depicted in the opening of the second act, where his method of discipline towards a young Hideko for talking back is pretty disturbing, but knowing Park is the director, it’s not a big surprise. The secondary female characters are complete opposites with Hideko’s aunt being the more sympathetic while Lady Sasaki, the main housemaid of the Kouzuki house, shows her loyalty to the more demented Uncle.
At first, the love affair between Hideko and Sookhee doesn’t seem to make an impact until we truly see the nature of the story in the second act of the film. From what is seen, the love scene between the two is done in the vein of Brokeback Mountain, in a tasteful yet barely graphic manner. However, once Hideko’s point of view is seen, the scene is reenacted in a tone akin to perhaps the controversial scene in the French film Blue is the Warmest Color. Hideko’s story gets the more erotically toned even with her readings of the classic erotica for Kouzuki and his fellows. One can think of these scenes as Hostel but replace erotica instead of torture yet there is a depiction of torture-like style in the vein of Marquis de Sade read by Hideko in another disturbing scene.
The Handmaiden is another notch for the controversial world of Park Chan-Wook. It is beautifully shot, very erotic in the second act, and at times disturbing. Yet the way the story is depicted with its three-act tale in such a way that it all works out at the end.
WFG RATING: A-
CJ Entertainment presents a Mono Film/Yong Film Production. Director: Park Chan-Wook. Producers: Syd Lim and Park Chan-Wook. Writers: Chung Seo-Kyung and Park Chan-Wook; based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. Cinematography: Jung Chung-Hoon. Editing: Kim Jae-Beom and Kim Sang-Beom.
Cast: Kim Min-Hee, Kim Tae-Ri, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Jin-Woong, Moon So-Ri, Kim Hae-Sook.