AFTER a brief flirtation with Hollywood (2013’s Stoker), Park Chan-Wook returns to Korea for The Handmaiden (Cert 18, 144 mins), a multi-layered thriller that mesmerises and devastates in equal measures.
While this may be the established director’s first real foray into romance, The Handmaiden comes equipped with all the masterful framing, bleaker-than-bleak humour and brutal violence for which Chan-wook has become beloved and revered.
The Handmaiden is inspired by Welsh author Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith, but loosely transplanting its narrative from a Victorian setting to pre-war, Japanese-occupied Korea.
Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a young thief employed by a Korean con-man impersonating a Japanese Count, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo).
The “Count” plans to seduce and marry a wealthy Japanese woman, Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and steal her inheritance.
Fujiwara sends Sook-hee to live with Hideko, posing as her handmaiden, in the hopes that she will influence the Lady’s opinion of the Count and ease along the marriage.
However, Hideko’s perverted uncle (Cho Jin-woong) – her guardian since the death of her mother, and the more dubious death of her aunt – also has his sights on her inheritance.
Beneath all this scheming, Sook-hee and Hideko form an intense bond; a deeply intimate relationship entirely foreign to Hideko’s conservative, sheltered upbringing and Sook-hee’s orphaned childhood on the streets.
Chan-wook’s screenplay, however, is woven with myriad levels of narrative intrigue; nothing is as it seems at first encounter.
The Handmaiden’s story is told in three parts, from altered perspectives. Often, the same incident is repeated from another angle, revealing intricate details that, however small, are integral to the narrative development of this wonderfully compelling thriller.
Chan-wook’s lens is dynamic and lyrical throughout, vacillating between creeping shots and sweeping movements; expertly composed symmetries and intimately framed close-ups.
While it evokes much of Chan-wook’s previous work, The Handmaiden is a distinctly unique-looking film.
The filmmaker relentlessly seeks out and frames each and every human movement, capturing every gesture with a masterful eye. Much of The Handmaiden is composed of close-ups on hands, fingers and eyes; glances, caresses and intimate touches.
From mild, trivial gestures to the most intense romantic encounter, each human interaction is made significant and sublime by Chan-wook’s intimate framing.
As such, for all its mystery and intrigue, The Handmaiden is a film about human intimacy captured in a lengthy series of intimate human interactions. With his unique style, Chan-wook renders the fantastical notion of “love at first sight” entirely believable.
It also helps that all this sumptuous photography is focused on beautiful costume and set-design unlike much of anything we get to see on our screens.
The Handmaiden is posed between wars, between countries and cultures. Accordingly, everything on display mixes the aesthetics of East and West: the lush greens of the Korean countryside, the deeps browns of the mansion’s Anglo-centric architecture, and the calming whites of its Japanese-inspired paper-walls.
The result is often otherworldly, and always a delight to gaze upon.
Each layer of romance and tragedy in The Handmaiden is inflected with Chan-wook’s wry sense of humour and morbid wit – this is often a deeply funny movie.
Even still, there’s a distinct sense of menace throughout, lurking beneath each and every narrative twist. Chan-wook’s storytelling is efficient, economic even, and details are only revealed ever so delicately.
Aided by a cast of actors profoundly capable of communicating genuine emotion, Chan-wook offers up a deeply human cinematic experience. The Handmaiden is a film that encapsulates everything so incredibly unique about its creator, cementing Chan-wook’s place as a master of modern filmmaking.