Park Chan-Wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’

Probably one of the most anticipated films of the year, not only for lovers of Asian cinema, but of cinema, in general, “The Handmaiden” proves that Park Chan-wook is one of the top filmmakers of the era, and that the knowledge he acquired from his time in Hollywood (Stoker) can be wonderfully implemented in Asian aesthetics.

The film is already an international success, since it has sold out in 175 countries, beating out the previous sales record of Bong Joon-ho’s English-language sci-fi feature “Snowpiercer”, to become the best-selling Korean film of all time.

The script is based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters and takes place in Korea of the 1930s, with the country under Japanese rule. Con man “Count” Fujiwara has managed to insert himself into the very secluded circle of Kouzuki, an eccentric hedonist who has become the man in charge of a very large estate, and plans to marry his niece, Lady Hideko, the actual heiress of the family’s vast fortune.

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Fujiwara devices an intricate plan to “steal” Lady Hideko for himself, and asks the help of a ragtag girl, Sook-hee, a petty criminal who lives with her aunt’s family, all of whom are of the same “profession.” The plan is for the girl to become Lady Hideko’s handmaiden, and to help Fujiwara seduce her. However, things do not go as planned, since an attraction is formed between the two girls, as the many plot twists result in a much-unexpected story.

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Park stayed close to the structure of the book, which is split in three segments, with the first and the third  telling the story from Sook-hee’s perspective, and the second one from Lady Hideko’s. In that fashion, he  used much narration, which is presented as the thoughts of the person that tells the story each time, and actually helps much in the understanding of the script.

Park refrained from his usual slow pace, directing a film that moves quite fast, as the events unfold very quickly and continuously.

However, his usual traits are once more present. The characters that act like caricatures, as exemplified by Sook-hee and particularly Kouzuki in perverse style. His irony, exemplified by the fact that the house combines Japanese with European-style architecture, in a hideous manufacture that mocks the fact that rich people can do whatever they have in their minds, but that does not mean that they also have taste.

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His dark and grotesque humor,which is exemplified in a torture scene, where the victim seems to even indulge in his maiming. The abnormal eroticism, as exemplified in the concept of the underground, erotic literature club.

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One of the film’s biggest and most obvious assets is its production values. Starting from the house’s interior, designer Ryu Seong-hee did a magnificent job in combining Japanese simplicity with the hyperbole of the baroque style, in an amalgam that is stylish, as much as it is grotesque, particularly in the lower levels of the house.

The same applies to the magnificent cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon, that provides great images, both in the bucolic exterior of the mansion and the interior, with the S&M scenes in the literature club being the most impressive. Jo Yeong-wook’s music is also very fitting, in all of the circumstances of the film, humorous, erotic or violent. Jo Sang-gyong in costumes and Song Jong-hee is make-up have also done a great job, with all of the different characters looking unique and particularly Lady Hideko, who is the one with the most and the most impressive changes in appearance.

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The cast also does a wonderful job. Ha Jung-woo plays the part of the cocky, seducing con-man Fujiwara to perfection, Kim Tae-ri is great as Sook-hee, the petty criminal who falls in love and can’t hide her frustration, and Cho Jin-woong is a distinct cult entry, as the eccentric uncle Kouzuki, whose perversion is evident even from his appearance and the way he speaks. The one that truly stands apart though, is Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko, who manages to portray a variety of different sentiments and notions, as she transforms throughout the segments. The visual prowess of the production is exemplified by her almost porcelain beauty, as she frequently functions as a perverse and disturbed doll.

One of Park’s biggest traits as a filmmaker is that he manages to combine elements of art-house, mainstream, and exploitation/cult in his movies, additionally succeeding in presenting his messages regarding society and humans through violence, eroticism, and extreme scripts. This trait of his finds its apogee in “The Handmaiden,” a true triumph of both style and substance. Park Chan-wook is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time and this film is a definite proof of the fact.

Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures will release THE HANDMAIDEN in theaters October 21st