In cinemas nationwide now.
A dense, heady tale of love, betrayal and depravity, Park Chan-wook’s latest film is as rich and layered as a thick slab of cake after an already large meal; impossible to resist yet a daunting prospect to get through in one sitting. In its extended director’s cut it’s nigh three hours of Gothic melodrama, unreliable narration and dizzying twists viewed through an opiate haze of plush period eroticism.
Based on the novel Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ subversive feminist take on Oliver Twist, The Handmaiden keeps the turbulent triptych story outline but relocates the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930’s. A conman ‘count’ Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) enlists the collusion of pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) in an elaborate scheme to defraud Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-hee becomes Hideko’s handmaiden in order to soften her feelings to Fujiwara, so he can marry her and then have her committed to an asylum. With the story told three times from differing perspectives the intricacies are gradually revealed, particularly the unforeseen consequence of Hideko and Sook-hee beginning to fall in love with each other.
Park has played with multiple perspective before, in the exemplary thriller Joint Security Area (2000), yet it’s utilised here to much more opulent and strange effect. Each line, glance and facial expression is heightened to operatic levels; each possibly a further obfuscation or misdirection. It’s a film of liquid madness. A film of water, ink, peach juice, paint, blood, and other bodily fluids working in thematic union. Yet, for all that it’s one of the most bonkers works you’ll ever see from a respected filmmaker, it’s intricately constructed, and almost restrained when it needs to be; like the studied reveal of an expert striptease.
Much of the attention will undoubtedly be on its bluntly explicit lesbian sequences, played with utter commitment from its two female leads. As with Blue is the Warmest Color, there is the possible accusation that the male gaze of the director distorts the relationship and make it voyeuristic. That’s hard to argue with, but next to gleefully perverse scenes of Hideko’s kinky uncle whipping his male guests into sweaty, fan-waving, leg-crossed, impotent arousal with recitals of Sadean depravity; the genuine love that grows between Hideko and Sook-hee feels natural, playful and celebratory.
The Handmaiden perhaps doesn’t quite justify the great length, although every single shot is a another mouthful of a hedonistic feast that will leave you stuffed, gluttonous and woozy from the sheer richness of it all. Park, for all his tendency to the extreme in some of his work – and The Handmaiden is merely a different expression of that tendency – rarely forgets to entertain, and he certainly hasn’t here. A film to gorge upon.