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Friday, 28 April 2017

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook is a fascinating director -- not exactly prolific but endlessly inventive. I've not seen all of this Korean auteur's films but I'm particularly fond of his 'Vengeance Trilogy': Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) -- his best-known flick, and "Lady Vengeance" (2005). I didn't much care for his quirky "I'm a Cyborg" (2006) nor his foray into English-language film-making with 2013's "Stoker" (something of a misstep I felt without the exoticism of his usual Korean cast). However, "Thirst" (2009) offered an interesting oriental slant on vampirism and he is back on top form with his latest film above.

He has taken the English novel "Fingersmith" and transported the action from turn-of-the-century England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, when mores and attitudes were still firmly 'Victorian'. This very long film is divided into three chapters, each largely (but not entirely) from the perspective of the three main characters. However this is not a latter-day "Rashomon" where we must guess which version is the real truth, but rather a gradual unveiling of a single truth. While we remain transfixed by the aesthetic opulence on display in the film's beautifully-crafted set decoration, make-up, and costuming, we don't immediately realise how we are being 'played' by the different storytellers. We do not know until the very end what or whom to believe.

Ex-pickpocket Sook-Hee is installed as the new personal maid-servant to Japanese-born heiress Lady Hideko on the recommendation of one 'Count' Fujiwara (actually a low-born Korean swindler who is scheming to take control of her fortune). To this end his competition is her elderly Uncle Kouzuki, who also covets his ward. He has kept Hideko isolated on his vast country estate, only letting her surface to read passages from his famous collection of erotica to a lusting audience. He has so far financed his lifestyle by selling the occasional rare book, except he can't bear to be separated from any part of his library and has used Fujiwara to prepare clever forgeries.

The 'Count' wants Sook-Hee to wage a war of attrition, promoting his rare qualities to the na├»ve and trusting Hideko. However a teasing and lustful intimacy soon develops between the two women, as the handmaiden indoctrinates the heiress into the ways of sexual love -- such as a man might expect. Fujiwara's fiendish plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, and have her confined to a madhouse, leaving him to enjoy the fruits of his wickedness, and having promised Sook-hee a relative pittance for helping him. To escape the unwanted attentions of her Uncle, Hideko eventually agrees to run away with him -- but only if Soon-hee can come as well. However the first chapter ends with the pair depositing the now well-dressed maid at the Dickensian loony-bin pretending that she is in fact the 'mad' Hideko. 

With chapters two and three we continue to gather previously unknown and withheld information about this trio and their interrelationship, leaving us to discover what secret game each of them is playing. At a bum-numbing 145 minutes the film manages to hold the viewer's attention with only minor gaps. One remains hypnotised not just by the gorgeous visuals but for a genuine desire to understand these complicated characters and to discover which of them will receive their just desserts. The true story emerges with Hitchcockian suspense while we are invited meanwhile to wallow in its depravity and raw sex.

It's a masterpiece of film-making which Park might never better, but he probably still has many years ahead of him and may well have further treats in store for us. I do hope so!
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