The Handmaiden *****
Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim Director: Chan-wook Park When the trailer for The Handmaiden first emerged, it seemed like a somewhat left-field choice for the now iconic director Chan-work Park. The auteur behind Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy, this South Korean filmmaker is known for his gritty tomes stuffed with violence, gore and examinations of the darkest sides of the human psyche. So with this film, a Victorian-era period drama exploring a lesbian relationship, it seemed quite the departure from his usual oeuvre. Or at least it seems that way until you see the film. When you do, you realise that all his hallmarks are very much present and correct, except this time they are framed by some wonderful frocks and a truly fabulous country mansion. Based on the English novel 'Fingersmith' by Sarah Waters, the film pretty faithfully (at least initially) adapts this story about deceit and transfers it to 1930s South Korea, during the Japanese occupation. Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) is a handmaiden starting a new job. Arriving at the home of Zouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), she is to look after his niece, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who increasingly displays unusual behaviour. But Sook-hee is there under false pretences. In reality, she is a thief, employed by the devious Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) who is intent on wooing and marrying her mistress, gaining access to her vast fortune and having her committed to a mental asylum. Sook-hee has been placed to convince her, but the longer she stays in the house, the more she realises that she is falling in love with her mistress. Filled with twists and turns, this is a long but brilliant film. Split into three parts that look at the story from three characters' perspectives, each section is wholly deceptive in their determination to double-cross and shock both the characters and audience. Just as the trailer conceals the true nature of the film, so too do the earlier scenes merely hint at the dark complexities yet to come, with the camera as unreliable as its characters. Tarantino-esque in its delivery, from later squirmish torture scenes it's easy to look back on the niceties of its genre and wonder how it managed become this extreme. Just like the final bloodbath of Django Unchained was to the simple western, or Inglourious Basterds to the World War 2 thriller, so too is The Handmaiden to the period drama. Visually, this film is stunning. With luscious costumes and beautiful sets, this could compete with the greatest Joe Wright period drama, but Park does not let these generic tropes push him away from more explorative editing, with shaky close-ups, unusual focus and frenetic camerawork that seeks more to reflect the characters' feelings than the scenery around them. Revelling in the dark side of humanity, it lingers the most on its biggest horrors, while also showing brief flashes of the characters' grotesqueries. The Handmaiden is a profoundly erotic film. In a scene in which Sook-hee uses a thimble to file her mistress' sharp tooth, the long and almost silent shot is so charged with blistering sexual tension that the entire cinema seemed to hold their breath. And obviously, this is not a film that withholds from showing the full extent of their eventual relationship, with long and beautifully framed shots of their sexual exploration. The film is drenched in their sexuality, and even in moments of treachery and betrayal, it is their love that serves as the driving force behind the already compelling narrative. Tae-ri Kim plays Sook-hee as a likeable anti-heroine, while Min-hee Kim is delightfully contradictory, see-sawing between delicate fragility and predatory sexuality. Jung-woo Ha is almost comic as the Count, whose determined greed seems absurd when played counterpoint to the intensity of the girls' love for each other. Jin-woong Jo, meanwhile, is suitably repulsive as Uncle Zouzuki, whose motives for keeping his niece in such stoic seclusion involve audiences of Japanese colonial gentlemen, a large wooden sex doll and volumes of antique pornography. Sex is laced throughout the film, so it's interesting that the Count has no sexual interest in Hideko whatsoever. Even though pornography is used as a controlling factor by both Uncle Zouzuki and the Japanese colonials, sex itself is a refuge from that. The Count does not use it to manipulate Hideko, instead focusing on her feelings as a gateway to her money. As a result, The Handmaiden is a remarkably progressive film that, despite using and abusing sex for the most part, refuses to objectify its subjects, even though it depicts them explicitly involved in sexual activity. Here, sex is used as an exaggeration of both human goodness and human evil. Just as Oldboy used violence to both purify its subject and condemn its villains, sex is used in exactly the same way here. Essentially, this is not a shock piece. This is an ode to the power sex really has.
OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND.