OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

The Handmaiden

(Ah-Ga-ssi)

By the director of Oldboy and Stoker.

After making his English-language debut with Stoker, Park Chan-wook returns to South Korea for The Handmaiden, a gloriously sensual and impressively layered thriller that’s every bit as Hitchcockian and gothic as its predecessor. In a brilliantly repurposed adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Park changes the setting of the story from Victorian England to Colonial-era Korea, which serves as a nuanced backdrop for his greatest masterpiece to date.

Poster for The HandmaidenLike Waters’ novel, The Handmaiden is structured in three acts, each exposing a new layer of perspective that enriches the complexity of its characters while advancing their stories to increasingly devious and wonderful depths.

In a remote estate lives a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who spends much of her time performing readings for a sadistic uncle who plans to use her inherited wealth to increase his literary collection. Enter Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a narcissistic Korean con man who employs clever pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as Hideko’s new handmaiden. Her inside information and influence over Hideko will help the Count seduce and defraud the elusive heiress. His plan gets more complicated when, unexpectedly, the two women find themselves attracted to one another.

It’s a complex plot executed with elegant precision and considerable tongue-in-cheek humour by Park, who wields his story with the determined delicacy of a corkscrew. The structure of The Handmaiden reflects that of a typical relationship: There are three sides to every story.

We begin from the perspective of Sook-hee, the orphaned daughter of a shrewd pickpocket. Sook-hee relates to the similarly orphaned Hideko, who, despite being rich, inherited the burden of performing for her uncle and his clients. Both women have been exploited by a system: Sook-hee is used as the Count’s tool, while Hideko has been transformed by her uncle into an object of desire who exists purely for male enjoyment.

Perhaps the most surprising turn in The Handmaiden is that Park has knowingly subverted his own iconography by delivering one of the most beautifully romantic films of the year. The sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko has a respectful sensitivity in which the most graphic image is some residual moisture on Sook-hee’s face. There’s also a certain playfulness between the two women in this scene, lending it a sense of realism.

Much attention will be paid to this scene in The Handmaiden, which is repurposed for the benefit of perspective in the second act, but more should be given to a particularly joyful moment in the library when the concept of love is fully recognized and understood between the two women. As they set about literally and figuratively destroying a patriarchal institution and all of its prohibitive, exploitative mechanisms, we witness a moment of pure, rapturously cathartic feminism – the Colonial-era Korean version of the ultimate female revenge fantasy.

– Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush
 

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