Thursday, November 24, 2016

Piercing the Jade Gate: Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden

Kim Min-hee (left) and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden.

Unlike Pete's Dragon or Arrival, no matter how much I want to, I can't recommend The Handmaiden to everyone I know. That's not because it isn't excellent – it is – but rather because its subject matter veers too far into the dark, the bizarre, the unseemly, and the explicitly erotic. I adored it, but I wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to tell my parents to go and see it. (It was already uncomfortable enough to share my matinee screening with a gaggle of cheery septuagenarians, who were decidedly more muted on their way out – stunned into silence, no doubt, by the intensity and perverse delight of director Park Chan-Wook’s newest opus. Guess they never saw Oldboy.)

The Handmaiden inverts Park Chan-Wook’s usual style, which cuts the tension of nail-biting dramatic setpieces with bursts of absurd humour, instead providing a soulful journey that’s punctuated with stabs of dark revelation. It’s a film that feels guided by a masterful hand, demonstrating a delicate balance of those disparate tones unseen in anything but Korean cinema (see:Snowpiercer; The Good, The Bad, & The Weird). It's brutal and sweet, icily tense and heartwarming, deeply dark and very funny. And, as if that weren’t enough, it’s probably the steamiest film you can see outside of a straight-up porno theatre.

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the film follows Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a petty thief and pickpocket who poses as a handmaid for the ailing heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to aid her accomplice, “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo), in seducing Hideko and stealing her riches. A naïve and uneducated girl, Sook is woefully unprepared for the surprising charms of her new lady, and as they grow closer together they slowly begin a passionate affair that threatens to undo the whole plan. But there may be more that Sook is missing – and the question of who exactly is conning whom becomes an important and deadly one.

If I tread close to story spoilers with that description, it’s because I wish I’d known going in that the film had more of a criminal plot set-up, almost like a madcap heist movie, rather than the Dressed To Kill-style thriller you might expect from the trailer – which is to say nothing of the fiery love story that throbs at the centre of it all. I don’t exactly feel misled, but I expect I might have responded more naturally to Park’s very deliberate stylistic choices if I’d had a better idea of what I was in for. As it was, I left the cinema surprised and delighted at the way the film turned my expectations on their ears – but I expect the seniors' club who saw it with me might not have bounced back with the same agility. All it means, really, is that I can’t wait to watch the film a second time.

Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous film to look at, and in its enthusiastic attention to detail it’s a joy to behold. Full of sumptuous cinematography and set design, skillful and exciting camerawork and editing, confident direction, and passionate performances, The Handmaiden is Park’s greatest effort yet, feeling like a culmination of his experience and expertise at cinematic storytelling. He arranges scenes – even the blisteringly hot lesbian encounters – with grace and patience, giving important emotional beats the time they need to breathe. He also coaxes some truly stunning performances from his leads, especially the two Kims at the centre of it all, whose chemistry is electric onscreen. Never mind the sex scenes: The Handmaiden is the sort of film in which an interaction as simple as the passing of a letter between hands is charged with erotic energy, ready to burst forth at any moment. Technically, it’s close to genius.

What gives The Handmaiden its true razor-sharp edge, though, isn’t the skill with which it’s realized. For his source material, Park used a novel by Sarah Waters called Fingersmith (natch), shifting that book’s Victorian English setting to his native Korea under Japanese rule. In doing so, he is able to preserve the sexual repression of the novel’s setting by translating it to a time and place that, in addition to being just as sexually repressed, was a uniquely unforgiving environment for women. This adds a fascinating layer of gendered drama to the film, which is as much a story about two women wrestling free of their societal bonds as it is about feuding con artists. Hideko is deeply damaged by her upbringing in a Japanese-styled home, where sexuality becomes as poisonous to her as mercury – and which galvanizes her to reclaim it. I was concerned at first about the possibility that the film would devolve into a leering peep show, like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the male gaze, but I was reassured to see that deconstructing and vilifying that very thing is actually crucial to the core of the story. Make no mistake: this is a film about female agency, and setting it in a time and place where women were treated as objects of possession brings that point home with cruel precision.

And yet the film is funny – often uproarious. Kim Tae-ri, in particular, is an actress with deadly comic timing and a great aptitude for physical pratfalls. She makes the character of Sook a lovable goof, a girl with plenty of attitude but not much brains, who demonstrates a great strength of spirit in her ability to accept the bizarre and unexpected things life throws at her. Ha Jung-woo, as the lecherous Count, is great, too; his slimy, love-to-hate-him take on a man who has a very high opinion of his own virtues is pitch perfect. It’s to Park’s eternal credit that he can find a way to balance the darker parts of his story with these lighter touches, and I think it’s because he treats them with equal seriousness, as disparate parts of a whole which he must work to make harmonious. The Handmaiden may be disorienting and strange, but it’s beautiful from top to bottom, too – the sort of film in which one luxuriates like a hot bath, soaking in the finesse and skill of one of cinema’s modern masters.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright,and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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