LFF 2016: The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook's latest, based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, is a darkly comic study in sex, class and Japanese-Korean relations
After a polarising foray into English-language filmmaking with 2013’s Stoker, Park Chan-wook returns to his native South Korean cinema for The Handmaiden. The results on display suggest a director rejuvenated. With this period epic of lust, love and (lady) vengeance there’s still all of the off-kilter bombast and blunt force that has characterised his career to date, but with a much more assured control of tone, pitch-black humour and his maximalist stylistic tendencies that makes this a career high.
The injection of strong source material and rich characters certainly helps to keep things from veering into the shallow mode of more recent efforts. The filmmaker may have headed back to Korean from English, but he’s taken an English-language novel to mould to his liking. The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ twisty Fingersmith, albeit increasingly loosely as it goes along, outside of a major structural conceit (best left unspoiled). Waters’s story is transposed from Victorian England to annexed Korea in the 1930s, so as well as a treatise on class interaction you now also get a darkly comic discourse on Japanese and Korean relations.
As such, there's just as much bile and fury in the clash of languages as there is in the love/hate triangle between hustlers of all breeds. At the centre point is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress sought out for marriage by the shady Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a man posing as a Japanese count and enlisting the services of an orphan pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ru) to pose in the title role and persuade the wealthy lady to fall for his charms.
But all is not as it seems with any of the relationships, nor does the legacy of the wealthy family have the sort of respectability the unwitting Sook-hee initially expects: less elocution lessons, more erotica-reading tutorials. Park Chan-wook’s films have often expressed an interest in various fetishes, but one of the most pleasant surprises in The Handmaiden is how the director compellingly, and with considerable candour, explores the total spectrum of sex – romantic to merely physical, beautiful to brutal, playful and funny to deadly serious power play. This may be a film that thrives on social flamboyance and physical grotesquerie, but what lingers most is its carnal heart.