The Cannes Film Festival is in full swing right now. This 70th edition of the festival not only has interesting films, but also remarkable juries such as Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, 2013), Fan Bingbing (actress and producer; see my review on her latest film), Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, 2016), and so on.
Park is, alongside other Korean filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho (The Host, 2006), Hong Sang-soo (The Day a Pig Fell into the Well, 1996), and Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003), a household name in the international film circuit. Park’s oeuvres have been awarded at Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere. Even last year he competed for the Palme d’Or with The Handmaiden at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. He didn’t win that prize, but his film was well-received by the critics.
After watching The Handmaiden, I was astonished – not only by the story itself but by the creative and clever way of constructing the protagonists. I must confess that I am a huge fan of Park Chan-wook’s works, from his thirst bloody savage films (Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002) to his comedy and romantic works (I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, 2006; A Boy Who Went to Heaven, 2005). So when I watched The Handmaiden, an erotic psychological thriller, I was expecting something more aggressive, as the trailer revealed a dark and suspicious setting. The film turned out to be brilliant, but with less (gore) violence and more sensual and lesbian sex scenes.
The film is based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. However, The Handmaiden’s story unfolds in the 1930s when Korea was colonized by Japan, and it is divided into three parts. A young woman Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent to be the handmaid of Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-hee is a thief that together with the so-called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) plan to steal the Lady’s inheritance by deceiving her into marrying him. However, their plan does not proceed as intended. Sook-hee is astonished by the beauty of the Lady, and pities her a bit, as Lady Hideko is controlled by her strict and perverted uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Sook-hee must fulfil the task she was given, but her emotions intertwine with her work.
The film is cleverly told, as the director gives you hints of what you can expect. Nothing is done without a reason and details count. Nevertheless, Park leaves the narrative to speak for itself by showing it through several points of view. The Handmaiden’s shots and scenes are detailed and well-balanced by its composition and by its colour. It is a pleasure to look at. For instance, my favourite scene, and a key one in the storyline (no spoiler): the scene with the cherry blossom tree. This scene is a delight to the eyes and it is charged with symbolic connotations that reveal the emotions and true characters of the protagonists.
Furthermore, the sex scenes are not just filmed for our ‘dirty’ and voyeuristic pleasure, but they play an important role in the twisting of our expectations, as the scenes are shown through different perspectives. These scenes make sense when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place at the end of the film. Moreover, the acting work is amazing, as the eyes of Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee speak a thousand words, which emphasises their fantastic chemistry.
All in all, The Handmaiden is certainly not the film you would expect from Park, but on a storytelling and cinematographic level, it represents the quality of Park’s works, which never disappoints when he decides to go for the psychological thriller genre. I don’t know about you, but I will watch this film again. Spot the hints, I would say.
Original title: 아가씨 (Agassi)