Mark Reviews Movies

The Handmaiden


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Chan-wook Park

Cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Cho, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:24

Release Date: 10/21/16 (limited); 10/28/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2016

Co-writer/director Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden is an invigorating exercise in shifting perspectives and sympathies. It's a story about a certain number of con artists who attempt to lie, cheat, and steal their way into the heart of another person, only to discover that they have cheated—and have been cheated—themselves.

It would be unfair to disclose the exact number of con artists at play here, since part of the enjoyment of the film is discovering the extent of the deception going on within the plot. It is worth noting, though, that the most transparently honest character of the bunch is a perverted older man, who finds fulfillment in the debasement of women and whose financial success is founded upon the similar desires of other men. He doesn't hide himself or what he wants, but if that's honesty, maybe deception is a nobler endeavor.

This is a film filled with and, really, based upon such moral and emotional contradictions. It's a sensual film, not only in terms of its frankness about sex and its gorgeous aesthetic qualities, but also in the way it focuses on the strange relationship between those two strongest of feelings: pleasure and pain. Park explores both of those feelings, as well as the connection between them, in terms of the physical, the emotional, the psychological, and, of course, the sexual.

In adapting Sarah Waters 2002 novel Fingersmith, screenwriters Park and Seo-kyung Chung have transplanted the action from the Victorian England of the book to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. The story begins with Sookee (Tae-ri Kim, a relative newcomer in her first leading role), an orphan who has been raised in a den of pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers. The young woman has nearly perfected the craft of the con, so when Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a Korean social climber with ambitions to exceed not only his class but also his nationality, comes to the den with a scheme to earn the affections of a young Japanese noblewoman, Sookee is the obvious choice to help him.

The plan is for Sookee to serve as the handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), another orphan who has lived a sheltered life away from the rest of civilization. Using her influence, Sookee will encourage the aristocratic woman to fall in love with Fujiwara or, at the least, accept his proposal for marriage. The count will marry the lady, take control of the fortune she inherited from her wealthy aunt, and give Sookee a cut of the money, as well as free selection from Hideko's extensive collection of clothing and jewelry.

When Sookee arrives at the lavish estate (which embraces both Japanese and Western design schools, as well as seeming readymade to hold an abundance of secret places) that the noblewoman calls home, though, she discovers that Hideko is a naïve, vulnerable, and haunted woman. She is ignorant in the ways of love and especially sex. She fears she may suffer the same fate as her aunt, who committed suicide to escape the domineering ways of her husband—Hideko's uncle by marriage—Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). She has nightmares of the aunt hanging from the tree outside her window. Sookee finds her role in the scheme compromised as she develops protective and romantic feelings for Hideko.

This, though, is merely the first part of three in the story. The first two acts essentially tell the same tale from different points of view. The second, which follows a climactic revelation that ends the first part and drastically shifts our understanding of and sympathies for these characters, follows Hideko. What's vital here is the way Park and Chung take us to a time before and to the happenings behind the scenes of the first act's story, drawing parallels between the lives and motives of Sookee and Hideko. Like the shadowy world of thievery and trickery in which Sookee was raised, Hideko has been part of a secret society run by her uncle, without any choice in the matter on her part. The society engages in its own variety of sensual desires, through readings of Kouzuki's extensive collection of erotica. The stories typically turn violent. The noblemen who comprise the audiences at these readings are visibly excited by the sadomasochistic details.

After the sweet and innocent scenes of Sookee and Hideko exploring the tender and intimate side of sex (Sookee is almost worshipful of her partner, if the close-up of her face upon looking at a certain part of Hideko's body is any indication), there is a rather notable shock in the drastic change in the tone of, purpose for, and approach toward sex—even if it's just spoken. There's an inescapable degree of cruelty to the tales, and there's also no escaping the obvious cruelty of Hideko's situation.

Park performs a simple but potent reversal of staging within the uncle's grand library. At one point in the first act, Sookee finds herself in the hallway leading to the space, and a gate closes shut in front of her, preventing her from entering. When we see that gate again, it's in the second act from Hideko's perspective within the library. What was once the sign of a fortress becomes the unmistakable function of a prison. When those moments of tenderness between Sookee and Hideko arrive in the second act, they last longer, as if to serve as a psychological salve for Hideko, and become more about mutual pleasure than simply Sookee's amazement.

The plot features its own twists and turns in which loyalties are questioned, trust is betrayed, and the con of one set of characters is only part of another, more complicated scheme. The third act drops the veil on everything, while turning the suggestions and figurative examples of pain into very real acts.

Park's concern, though, is less with the details of the overlapping cons and more with the motives behind them, as well as the impact on the characters who find their feelings betraying their jobs. That's at the heart of The Handmaiden, which plays with our sympathies for these characters. It forces us to see them for the paradoxical entities that they are—like a set of metal balls on a string that play prominently in two scenes, capable of bringing about pain or pleasure depending on one's perspective.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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