The Handmaiden – LFF Review

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Park Chan-wook is back! End of review.

For his next trick the South Korean cinematic force of nature is tackling source material closer to these British shores. The acclaimed director of the Vengeance trilogy, and more recently Thirst and Stoker, has adapted Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith for the big screen and in doing so moved the narrative from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A con man (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to work as the handmaiden to a young heiress (Kim Min-hee) in the hopes of convincing her to marry the con artist rather than her own uncle (Cho Jin-woong) to whom she is betrothed. Once wed the heiress will be confined to an insane asylum and the two criminal elements will split the spoils. That’s the plan at least…

As anyone familiar with Fingersmith will know there is more than one twist in this tale and Chan-wook stays true to the twisting nature of the original if not the entire plot. Where the two diverge is yours to discover. With his adaptation Chan-wook has created a dark fable of lust, betrayal, and a dark humour that flows beneath everything else. Whether creating a scene of extreme torture or sapphic indulgence to rival Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-wook never loses a charming sense of fun and as such the sex and violence never feels exploitative. As to whether the erotic scenes suffer from the male gaze is something for someone with different eyes to mine to judge.

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That said the film is undeniably on the side of the female characters as it takes its point of view of events from the heiress and pickpocket, while all the male characters are varying degrees of vile and misogynistic. Twisty plot aside The Handmaiden is about two women finding solace in one another as they struggle to fight the oppression of the men in their lives; men who value their penises above all else. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call The Handmaiden a feminist film but it villianises men as much as it objectifies the women. Two wrongs make a right. Right guys? Excuse me while I wring my hands for loving this film.

Kim Min-hee, last seen in Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, brings complex layers to an elegant woman with a myriad of secrets bubbling underneath, and dares us to judge a character based on first impressions alone. As for Kim Tae-ri; what a debut! Having never done a feature before she tackles a joint lead role which is challenging not just emotionally but physically. “Brave” performance tropes aside the role of the pickpocket/handmaiden requires physical comedy chops alongside the dramatic demands. The whole film rests on these two woman and they are what makes the film work so well.

Overall Chan-wook has made a gorgeous film that is a real treat to watch. Everything from the cast, to the production design, to the subtitles in two colours to help you discern what language is being spoken, everything has been meticulously put together. Some might say that the film is too long at almost two and a half hours but when you’re loving a film this much why would you want it to end?

Beautiful, funny, sexy, and dark. Perfect.