The Handmaiden (18)
DIRECTED BY: Chan-wook Park
STARRING: Min-hee Kim, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Hae-suk,
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutesYEAR: 2017
Review by Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
With his erotic classic In the Realm of the Senses from 1976, the Japanese director Nagisa Oshima achieved the distinction of popularising auto-erotic strangling in the US. Will Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden be able to claim anything comparable? This film’s addictive and outrageous sexiness might just create an international fad for filing down your lover’s crooked tooth in the bath with the finely serrated surface of a thimble. It’s a quasi blowjob scene that sounds bizarre in print. On screen, it was so extraordinary that I almost forgot to breathe.
Park is the veteran of extreme cinema, renowned for his brutal Vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Now with co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong he has adapted the novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters – a humid story of crime, love and betrayal that he has transplanted from Victorian London to Japanese-ruled colonial Korea of the 1930s. From this source material, he creates a horribly delicious suspense thriller to compare with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, a drama of double-cross and triple-cross, with some headspinning point-of-view shifts in which Park turns his camera into the most unreliable narrator possible. Halfway through the film, there is a whiplash twist, a spectacular convulsion that flips everything on its head and restarts the story, so that the audience can fully savour the gamey taste of treachery.
Park has three outstanding actors: Ha Jung-woo plays “Count” Fujiwara, a devilishly handsome career criminal and phoney nobleman who recruits pickpocket Sook-hee, played by Kim Tae-ri, to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of a hideous plutocrat and book-dealer. This loathsome old man forces his heiress niece, Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee, to read pornography aloud to his dinner-jacketed guests to induce them to buy his forbidden rare volumes. Sook-hee’s job is to persuade Hideko to accept the Count’s secret marriage proposal and elope when the time is right: the handmaiden’s chaperone presence is vital for this plan. The fake Count explains that once he has emptied his new bride’s bank account, he plans to have Hideko banged up in a lunatic asylum, and Sook-hee can have some of her jewels. But Hideko and Sook-hee find themselves explosively attracted to each other. Who is seducing whom?
The exquisitely beautiful Kim Min-hee is excellent as Hideko with all her gamine innocence, petulance and entitlement, and Kim Tae-ri is superb as the handmaiden herself: smart, worldly, talented in the ways of deceit and yet with an unsuspected streak of romance. Ha Jung-woo swaggers and struts superbly as the predator-conman: his sneery conceit is really funny.
The film is drenched with eroticism: it permeates the surfaces and textures, the rituals of teacher and pupil – the preposterous pretext for the Count’s visits is that he is teaching her to paint – and of course in the secret theatre of sex that plays out in the world of mistress and maidservant. In the licensed intimacy of Hideko’s bedroom, Sook-hee is allowed to undress Hideko, who playfully pretends to be the servant by undressing her in turn. In the manner of classic Victorian erotica, the handmaiden demonstrates to her awestruck mistress in bed exactly what she can expect on her wedding night.
The Handmaiden is about pornography, albeit pornography of the high-minded connoisseur kind from the Gutenberg age: rare books. Hideko has to read aloud from sub-Sadean material and then – in a fantastically twisted scene – pose on a kind of porn trapeze with a male mannequin. And porn’s undertow of shame has a political dimension. It is a cousin to the mortification of submitting to colonial rule. But sex is the sanctuary from pornography in The Handmaiden, the sex that Hideko and Sook-hee enjoy is the refuge from porn and its furniture of abuse and control.
As for the wealthy book-dealer himself, Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) is never allowed to take away from our ersatz Count’s charismatic-villain prerogative, but he is certainly potent and malign, associated with an image familiar from Park’s earlier film Oldboy: an octopus. Maybe Park was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, with its story of the disturbed man and his obsession with his niece. It is certainly a brilliant adaptation of Sarah Waters’ original novel and a film about something that most other movies can only guess at: pleasure and rapture.
FRIDAY 23 FEBRUARY 2018
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
Rotten Tomatoes - 95%
The Guardian - ★★★★★
The Observer - ★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★
The Times - ★★★★