After travelling to the U.S for his previous feature, “Stoker”, Park Chan-Wook has returned to South Korea for his latest film, “The Handmaiden”. Due to the twisting and turning narrative, I really have no idea how to write a succinct synopsis of the film, so instead will just copy and paste the one that is in the MIFF guide, which I think describes the film perfectly:
“Sooki, a beautiful young pickpocket, has been dispatched by a master conman known as The Count to become handmaiden to naïve Japanese heiress Hideko. The plan: lure Hideko into falling in love with The Count and as soon as they are married lock her in a mental asylum and claim her vast fortune. However, Hideko is far from what she seems and when handmaiden and mistress fall in love, the stage is set for a dangerous and sexually explicit power play that could leave all three of them unmoored.”
There are certain things that you now put down as given when watching a Park Chan-Wook film. The first, the film is going to look amazing. All of his films have stunning production design and all have been immaculately shot. The second, they are never boring. While not all of his films are totally successful, you are never bored for a second in any of his films. And the third, they tend to stray towards the “weird” side of life rather than anything conventional. True to form, all of the above can be found in “The Handmaiden”.
The original novel that this film is based upon, Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith”, was set in Victorian Era England, however for this adaptation Park has changed the location to Korea in the 1930's, back when Japan was still occupying the country. The period has been gorgeously recreated with both locations and costumes looking of the era down to the tiniest details, and he shows off these details every chance he gets, in typical Park fashion, which is to say it is highly stylised. This visual style has become so pronounced that you can pick one of his films from just the images of its trailer, so to say that another Park Chan-Wook film looks breathtakingly gorgeous, is almost redundant but at the same time it is also the truth. “The Handmaiden” is now the seventh collaboration between director and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon, and it is clear that they both bring out the best in each other's talents. There is a sumptuousness to the films of Park Chan-Wook that have been shot by Chung Chung-Hoon that is not there in the films he didn't. He gives the film an expensive look to it all, which is perfect for “The Handmaiden” and the locations where this story is being told within.
In regards to the film's entertainment value, I have to say that it is at an extremely high level. Although the film is long, there is always something going on that you have no chance of being bored. The greatest asset in achieving this is Park's choice in tone for the film. He brilliantly keeps the film light and it never takes itself too seriously. If he had decided to go the other way and play it totally straight, all the twists and turns of the narrative seriously would've been on the nose. Instead by keeping the film playful and fun, it becomes so much easier to except the ridiculousness of some aspects of the film. While the film is playful, I was surprised by just how funny it also was. There are moments in the film where you could find yourself laughing through this more than a comedy, but being a Park Chan-Wook film you should be aware that the comedy can have a darkness to it. I will say that the film's structure though is a little problematic, at least in the short term and on an initial viewing of the film. “The Handmaiden” is actually split into three parts, and during each individual part we see things that we thought we knew as truth, from a different point of view thus changing the point of certain scenes, and just who was playing who. Personally I found the start of the second chapter extremely jarring and it took me out of the film for a while, but once I had it worked out in my head again, I was with the film until its finale. However be prepared for many twists and turns because they happen frequently, so this is a film that you really need to focus 100% on.
While I stated above that Park's films tend to focus themselves on the weirder side of life, this is true, although with “The Handmaiden” a large focus of the film is on sexuality and it is quite explicit. It is no spoiler to mention that the film's main relationship is between the two girls in the film and Park does not hold back during his presentations of these lesbian sex scenes. They are quite full on and very explicit, however, you would never call them very realistic. I had actually heard this criticism after its Cannes screening, so maybe my antennae was tuned in to notice this, but they really are a male's fantasy version of lesbian sex. It is more how we, as men, often picture it to look, whereas I feel the truth of them to be very different. In another film I saw this year at MIFF, “I, Olga Hepnarova”, there was another portrayal of lesbian sex that I thought was brilliant and felt like the truth, and importantly it felt like the women were into each other, which you cant really say for the scenes in “The Handmaiden”. Here we get the girls in exotic positions but it all feels a little fake and over the top, but in saying that I guess that fits with the tone of the rest of the picture. The other part of sexuality in the film is when Hideko reads to a group of men a selection of adult novels, and the language and explicit descriptions within them are not for those with faint ears. Oh and if you are looking for something weird in the film, Park fan's should be happy to know that another octopus shows up in this picture in one of the films best WTF moments.
One aspect I briefly want to mention before wrapping this up is the subtitles of the film. Because both Japanese and Korean is spoken at a rapid pace, and sometimes even changes mid-sentence (due to the fact that all the characters are fluent in both languages), the subtitles are presented in two different colours. The subtitles for the Japanese spoken were in yellow, whilst Korean was subtitled in normal white. For an English speaking person who is not fluent in either language, you may think who cares, but this decision actually makes for a richer experience because there is a deeper meaning or reason for the characters to change language and we now get to experience (at least partly) these nuances too. I commend the decision to do this and hope it stays the same when the film arrives on blu ray later in the year.
Overall, I found Park Chan-Wook's latest film, “The Handmaiden” to be an absolute delight. It is a great thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time, and its playful tone makes the film endlessly entertaining. It has been acted wonderfully by all involved, keeping the performances as playful as the film itself, and as usual for a film by Park, it looks magnificent. Whilst the film is a little jarring at the start of the second chapter, I'm sure this only exists during a persons initial viewing of the film. The only other negative I have is the film is slightly too long, but at the end of the day, this is yet another successful film from Park Chan-Wook.