Movie Review – The Handmaiden (Sydney Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something gloriously trashy, excessive, operatic and grand.

REVIEW: When cineasts are asked to name one Korean director, the director in question will most likely be Park Chan-wook. Receiving critical acclaim with the 2000 war-drama JSA (Joint Security Area) and the revenge flick Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park received worldwide recognition from critics and audiences alike with the crime thriller masterpiece, Oldboy. Since then, he has branched out his film-making skills, going into arthouse territory with Lady Vengeance; whimsical romance with I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK; operatic horror with Thirst; venturing to Hollywood with the gothic piece Stoker and now we have The Handmaiden. Given the massive buzz it achieved from Cannes, achieving the record for the best-selling Korean film in history and my love for overstated and excessive soap opera stories, I was so psyched to see this. Now let’s set this review from dignified to steamy!

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Set in the 1930s when Korean was under Japanese rule, newcomer Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee aka Tamako aka Okju, a hardened street-smart thief who is hired as the titular occupation to look after Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who has very little experience of the outside world. Hideko is currently arranged to marry her twisted freak of an uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong); and her only sense of peace is her time spent with Sook-hee. The two gradually bond to become friends but what Hideko does not know is that Sook-hee is colluding with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to steal Hideko’s fortune by arranging a marriage between Fujiwara and Hideko and then sending her to the nuthouse. The plan seems to be coming into fruition but little does Fujiwara know is that Hideko is slowly falling in love with Sook-hee. Their relationship sets off a tumultuous turn of events that involve double-crosses, rumoured ghosts, sadomasochism, lesbianism, torture and yes, even an octopus.

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To get down to the nitty-gritty, let me just say this first. I was sweating while watching this in the cinema and I also sweated when I wrote this review. In other words, I loved this film. The film is spectacularly campy, operatic, depraved, steamy and does not take anything in its frankly ridiculous story seriously. Similar to David Fincher with his 2014 hit Gone Girl, Park Chan-wook took what is essentially seen as a soap opera and turned it into a grand piece of entertainment. The cast and crew go to great lengths to make this film as fantastic as is and it applies to all facets of film-making. The direction is tight, assured and gleefully excessive (Who’s to say that you can’t have torture or a dick joke in this film?), with its surprisingly fast pace within its nearly 150 minute run-time. The cinematography by Park regular Chung Chung-hoon is so downright masterful that if I were to close my eyes while watching and randomly stop, I know that without looking, I will gladly hang it up on my wall. The musical score my Park regular Jo Yeong-wook conveys the grand scale of the operatic story that is quite reminiscent of the music of Mozart.

And saving the best for last is Park’s fantastic use of black comedy. Apparent in all of his previous films, Park uses it brilliantly to offset the potentially dark nature of the story and takes it towards something glorious and even self-aware camp. There’s a scene involving an attempted suicide that starts off grim but it gradually becomes funny because it starts off so grim. The use of black comedy even applies to the heat-inducing sex scenes, especially when the teasing starts that involves a scene involving a lollipop, a bathtub and a sharp tooth. I laughed during this film more than in most recent comedies, and that is a testament to Park’s direction.

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Speaking of the sex scenes, they work magnificently not because the actresses are attractive (I’m a guy, I noticed.), it is because they have wonderful chemistry together and Park writes the story that makes the sex scenes more than just prurience. The sex scenes signify a major point in the character development that shows the characters are in control of their destinies, unlike the male characters who are clearly drawn into their own vices i.e. Fujiwara with money and Kouzuki with sadomasochism. It makes the film both feminist and exploitative at the same time, but since the film doesn’t take itself seriously and veers towards camp, it becomes a very funny detail. Camp indeed, but very funny and entertaining nonetheless.

The gifted cast also deserves a lot of credit for their sheer commitment to the story as well as Park’s direction. What is quite surprising to me is that none of the actors have ever worked with Park before. Chosen among 1,500 candidates, Kim Tae-ri makes a fantastic debut as Sook-hee. Handling the comedic aspects like a sport (particularly when her character is naive or rude) to clearly showing no hesitance during the sex scenes (her line deliveries are even funnier during the sex) and even handling the dramatic aspects like a pro like during a mid-film twist or a scene where she has an outburst that leads her to destroy a LOT of kinky property. Kim Min-hee (whom I loved in 2013’s anti-romantic comedy Very Ordinary Couple) is thankfully given a role that she can sink her teeth into (that’s not a pun, I swear!). Playing demure to submissive to utterly controlling, Kim is very convincing and her chemistry with Tae-ri can turn a cinema theater into a sauna; clearly evident in the bathtub scene. It is these two alone that make the film worth watching.

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As for the male actors, Ha Jung-woo dexterously uses his star power to exude arrogance, greed with such a wonderfully exaggerated swagger that you can see why a woman would be charmed then be thrown away without the slightest instance; while Cho Jin-woong is entertainingly sick and depraved as Uncle Kouzuki, whose eventual character reveal is funny to witness. The supporting cast are all good in their roles, especially Moon So-ri and Kim Hae-sook, whom both make a welcome presence in a haunting fashion. As for its flaws, there really isn’t that much except for a slight drag in the second act due to its unnecessary flashbacks to previous scenes. And for those who are expecting films of a serious nature or to have a serious message will definitely not find it here.

After seeing the mixed reaction of his English-language film Stoker, Park Chan-wook came back to Korea with his vast return to form that was a locally huge box office hit. In my opinion, The Handmaiden is the film Park wanted to make with Stoker and boy, did he succeed. After watching The Wailing and now this, Korean cinema is on a roll this year and I can’t wait to see what Park comes up with next.

P.S – The cinema screening I went to for this could not have been any better. The entire audience took the humour really well and I have never heard so many legs crossing during a cinema in my entire life.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Park’s direction is gloriously excessive

First-class production values

The storytelling, tone and dark humour elevates the film to the next level in entertainment

CONS

Slight drag in the second act due to unnecessary flashbacks

SCORE: 9.5/10

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on a novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters

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