Frustratingly, but perhaps wisely, much of the press surrounding this film has highlighted the explicit nature of the sex scenes. If the job of reviews is to let readers know what to expect from a movie then it is probably right to inform any potential audience that watching this will mean sitting through around ten minutes of borderline pornographic material (depending on whether your definition of pornography involves something being specifically designed to titillate). The whole film is two and a half hours long though and it is so so much more than the erotic thriller that some editorials have made it sound like. It is interesting that no one has seen fit to warn anyone about the violence as well which is just as extreme and potentially far more upsetting. Clearly cinematic sex still shocks more than big screen brutality which actually just shows how alarmingly inured we have become to the latter. To be fair there is some disturbing sex stuff in The Handmaiden but it’s not what goes on in the bedroom. Anyway, it’s not one for the kids, it is rated 18 for all the reasons that a film can be rated 18, let’s move on.
Getting past this, which a proper appreciation of this film demands we do, The Handmaiden is a meticulously crafted period crime drama. Set in Japanese occupied Korea sometime between the two World Wars it tells of a scheme to con a young heiress out or her fortune. This is neither Washington Square, Gaslight or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels though, although it mirrors elements of all of these. It is considerably more twisted. What it actually is is an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Booker shortlisted novel Fingersmith and it follows that story quite closely up until it’s third act where it jettisons the Dickensian, Gilbert & Sullivan, Victorian melodrama ending. While the plot reflects tales that have been told before though director Park Chan-Wook does exactly the same has he did with his last feature Stoker; taking something that (and this is not saying anything against the celebrated source material) could have been cliched in the wrong hands and turning it into high art.
The Handmaiden is tense and absorbingly atmospheric, it is brilliantly performed, and it is staggeringly beautiful. With the composition of his shots, the framing and the use of colour it is almost as though Chan-Wook is the showing us the wonders of high definition cinema anew. So much so that it is initially frustrating that the film is subtitled as the need to read the dialogue requires you to look away from the complete beautifully composed image on screen. In my review of Stoker, Chan-Wook’s only English language film, I heralded the man as the new Hitchcock but while he has the same command of suspense and cinematic storytelling that comparison is reductive. Chan-Wook isn’t actually like anyone else, he is in a class of his own. It is also pleasing to see that after one foray into the mainstream, the director is back making movies in South Korea. He is clearly not a film maker who likes to compromise, the aforementioned sex and violence are testament to this, and it is good that he is back working in the industry in which he clearly belongs. (It is also staggering that The Handmaiden was made for the equivalent of $9 million. You couldn’t make a paper aeroplane for that in Hollywood.)
So clearly there are parts of this film that may be discomforting for some audiences but if you can get past this then it is a quite brilliant film. It is by turns funny, moving, repulsive and sensual and is an absolute triumph. It has been out for a couple of weeks now and unfortunately foreign language films don’t tend to hang around but it is still playing in a number of city cinemas if you want to catch it. I would suggest you do.
The Ripley Factor:
I made my peace with feminist films that include lesbian love scenes a little while ago. Blue is the Warmest Colour was a baptism of fire in that respect so I have no trouble with The Handmaiden. I do acknowledge that for some including arguably excessive nudity that is totally imbalanced between the genders may be a deal breaker. The things is though, it’s not about the men. This is a story of women finding strength to fight against patriarchal oppression and should be celebrated for its gender politics alongside everything else.