Park Chan-Wook makes fucked up films. That has never been in any doubt. From the manic-depressive twists and turns of Oldboy to the ticking chills of his English-language debut Stoker, Chan-Wook has always challenged his audiences in order to see what their eyes, stomachs, and minds can take. The Handmaiden is another brave step for the South Korean master.
The Handmaiden takes smaller steps in comparison to the bounding leaps of its predecessors but this reflects the slow, psychotically meditative pace of the film. In Japanese-occupied Korea in the early twentieth Century, a pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is hired by a con-artist as the maid for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), a Japanese heiress. The con-man, operating under the alias Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), plans to steal Hideko away from her perverted, abusive uncle and marry her before locking her in an asylum and making off with her inheritance. Confused yet? You will be by the film’s many elaborate but altogether masterful twists.
Composed in three parts, Park Chan-Wook has made a film from the viewpoint of both of his female protagonists. The deceptively cunning Sook-Hee plays a long game of wits with both the outclassed Fujiwara and the sly genius that Lady Hideko hides so well. Both Tae-Ri and Min-Hee play their roles to perfection. Both women add layer upon layer to characters that are already scheming, seductive and vulnerable. But the true stars of the film are cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and the production and costume designers Seong-hie Ryu and Sang-gyeong Jo.
Every frame is filled with sumptuous detail and incredible imagery. From the beauty of early twentieth Century Korea to the decadent and ostentatious Japanese costumes. Chan-Wook ties all of these things into a web that is complex and deep but retains the brutal pulp his films are so recognised and reviled for. The Handmaiden is a landmark in period cinema as well as in cinema, period. Andrew Carroll
Director: Chan-wook Park