For those who are well-versed to Asian cinema, Korean director Park Chan-wook is one of the world’s finest directors. His composed visual style, copious use of dark comedy, his extraction of beauty out of the most controversial subjects and his way of getting out fantastic performances from his cast, he’s clearly earned his sterling reputation. And with films like Oldboy, Thirst, Lady Vengeance and others, we have grown to admire and enjoy his contributions to cinema.
Referring back to my overwhelmingly positive review, I said that during the screening that I attended, I heard so many legs crossing during one of the sex scenes of the film, that it made me give out a huge smile on my face. That alone made the film the most fun I had this year. But there are so many other reasons why I absolutely adored this film from beginning to end. Hold on to your seats, it’s going to be a steamy ride.
1. The actresses
This is the first time that director Park Chan-wook has worked with an entirely new cast that he’s never worked with before. But that obviously didn’t stop him or hinder him on getting fantastic performances out of them.
Chosen from 1,500 other applicants, newcomer Kim Tae-ri is a revelation as the titular character, Sook-hee. The film starts off in a serious fashion, during the times of Japanese-occupied Korea and Sook-hee sees families being split apart, and it makes her sad, hinting the audience that the film would be a serious and grim experience. But once the plot is revealed, the film cuts the crap and characters are finally revealed. Sook-hee’s introduction is fantastic, as Kim portrays Sook-hee’s naughty and feisty side with aplomb, paying off with some very funny moments.
Other scenes where she pulls off her comedic chops is surprisingly, during the steamy sex scenes. The sense of wonder, amazement and excitement is hilarious to watch, as well as easily relatable. But the real surprise is her dramatic chops. Like in the middle-act twist where Sook-hee realizes she was the mark in the plan all along, Kim handles the scene like a pro, being very convincing in feeling betrayed and possibly teetering towards insanity.
Next is Kim Min-hee. Impressive in the anti rom-com Very Ordinary Couple yet wasted in the thriller No Tears for the Dead, she finally gets to sink her teeth (pun definitely intended) into the meaty role of Lady Hideko. Whether it’s to portray the character’s curious or duplicitous side, Kim shows both grace and composure throughout. And just like Tae-ri, she also reveals her real motivations and desires and it is electrifying to watch. Seeing her taking control of the situation or sharing astounding chemistry between Tae-ri, the two actresses are the main reason why The Handmaiden succeeds. Winning both Best Actress and Best New Actress at the Blue Dragon Film Awards just proves that.
- The actors
Although the actresses are the main attraction to the film, that doesn’t mean that the actors are falling far behind. As the greedy and arrogant Count Fujiwara, Ha Jung-woo is clearly having a lot of fun. Whether he’s gleefully eating a peach or unintentionally showing his bare-ass, he plays a character that the audience will love to hate. Compared to his roles like in The Berlin File and the films he’s done with director Na Hong-jin, it’s refreshing to see him in such a role where he can let himself go.
As for Jo Jin-woong, he plays the deviant Kouzuki, the so-called uncle of Lady Hideko. Playing a role much older than his actual age, Jo portrays Kouzuki in an extremely creepy manner that makes his scenes with both young Hideko and Lady Hideko disturbing, particularly when the scenes are set in his sex dungeon, complete with sex dummies. But when his character is eventually revealed (his character has no goddamn clue about sex), his acting becomes amusingly petulant and needy, leading to some very funny moments in the final act.
- The use of dark comedy
Whether the story involves themes of revenge, ultra-violence, incest and other taboo subjects, director Park Chan-wook never holds back on the dark comedy, and here in The Handmaiden, he goes all out with it.
Knowing that the source material (Fingersmith, by Sarah Walters) is ripe with potential pulp out of its lurid, prurient and controversial themes, Park extracts character-based humour out of its story like the naivety of Sook-hee during the sex scenes or the arrogant attitude of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) conveyed by a simple action of eating a peach and especially in a scene where Hideko is committing suicide and Sook-hee stops her from doing so.
The film isn’t even above the more bawdy and raunchy humour, as Sook-hee is forced to grab Fujiwara’s penis as he is boasting about his motivations of the plan, leading Sook-hee to angrily resist and make fun of his penis size. It is a lot funnier than it sounds and the actors are game to the proceedings.
And of course, there’s leg crossing from deviant men of an insane degree in scenes where Lady Hideko reads sex stories like Jin Ping Mei, a very popular Chinese story of lust and revenge. The audience in the screening I attended reacted the exact same way during the sex scenes. That’s the magic of cinema, people.
All of the humour that is present in the film and the game actors make The Handmaiden Park’s funniest film since the vampire tale Thirst, which also explored themes of lust and prurience.
- The production values
One thing that you can always count on in a Park Chan-wook film is that it will look amazing on the big screen. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Chung Chung-hoon is so beautiful, sumptuous and ravishing that you’ll want to live in the world of the film, despite the disturbing things that happen.
The production design by Ryu Seong-hie compliments the look of the film very well, looking very specific to the time period of the 1930’s. And don’t get me started as to how he made the settings for Kouzuki’s chracter, including the basement and the sex dungeon. What was amazing that some of the settings were rendered with seamless CGI, thanks to visual effects supervisor Lee Jeon-hyoung and his team.
The musical score by Jo Yeong-wook stirs the emotions proficiently during the dramatic scenes and is quite reminiscent of great period stories and ditto for costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong, who’s collaborated with Park on some amazing costumes, like the headgear for I Am a Cyborg, But That’s OK and the fantastic costumes for the titular Lady Vengeance.
- The skewering of sexual politics
With a film having a story such as this, it’s a bit of a touchy subject as to how the filmmakers handle the subject of sexuality, since it is a major theme in the film. Handling it too tastefully, the audience will think that the film lacks passion. Whereas handling it too pruriently, the audience will think that it becomes exploitative, adding fuel to the flame that is known as the male gaze.
The way Park Chan-wook handles the sex scenes is that he tries his best to focus on the faces of the characters, making sure that the sex scene is not just a story point, but a turning point for character development and the chemistry between the actresses. It also conveys the epiphanies that the characters discover, which is that they fully become independent on making their own destinies, without any reliance on the men in their lives.
The shots never linger on their body parts for too long and sometimes relies on mirror reflections. At the climax (pun intended) for the sex scene, the characters hold hands while they complete their session, representing a sense of unity and strong development in their relationship.
Alongside the actresses, the production values and direction, what makes the sex scenes special is the humour. During the intimate sex scenes, the characters do something that normal intimate sex scenes rarely do: The characters talk about what they are doing. The commentary from the characters about what they are doing is realistic, amusing and again confirms the great chemistry between the characters. Kim Tae-ri, in particular, conveys a sense of wonder and bedazzlement that it comes off as hilarious. There’s even a shot of Tae-ri that comes from the POV of Min-hee’s nether-regions, which again, shows the humour as character-based.
Whether you see the film’s sex scenes as either exploitative or empowering, there’s a delicate balance of prurience and the puritanical that the sex scenes actually advance the story, instead of just providing eye candy.
What is also worth noting is that unlike the female characters, who eventually grow and become independent with their lives, every male character is held down to their vices (Fujiwara with money and Kouzuki with sex) and it is because of them, they end up in their inevitable fates. At least Fujiwara goes out on his own boastful terms, taking Kouzuki with him.
The Handmaiden is definitely one of the best films I’ve seen this year that had me thrilled, amused and awed in equal pleasure. Can’t wait for Park’s next project and I hope it’s going to be just as amazing!
Legs crossed! Fingers crossed!