Having established South Korean cinema as a creative force with his masterpiece Oldboy, auteur Park Chan-wook returns to the Croisette with The Handmaiden. One of the favorites so far at the Cannes Film Festival, it is a twisted thriller full of graphic erotica and a noir atmosphere, inspired by the novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters.
The movie is divided into three parts, growing more sultry, twisted and XXX as the story unfolds. And what a story it is.
Part one acquaints us with the protagonists and the plot, set in 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation. The self-proclaimed Count (Ha Jung-woo) devises an elaborate, evil plan to rob the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) of her inheritance and have her locked up in a madhouse. He thus recruits expert pickpocket Sookee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) to get herself hired as Hideko’s handmaiden, to help him seduce her and convince her to elope with the Count. In fact, he is nothing but a swindler with no fortune of his own, passing himself off as a Japanese nobleman.
What follows is a multi-layered story, getting more perverse by the minute. Everything is a matter of appearance. Brilliantly edited, what you see in Part Deux completely blows away everything you thought you saw in part one, as alliances change when Sookee and Hideko discover an unexpected attraction. As the young women get closer and share secrets and more, eroticism takes center stage, becoming more graphic with each chapter. While the love scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color were long and gratuitous and added nothing to the film, here they claim to be part of a story which revolves around erotica.
The two young women are naturally drawn to one another. They both exude a presence despite their opposing circumstances. Park Chan-woo describes it best: “One is a person with a dark past, and one is a person living in a desperate present, but both exude a very strong sense of individuality and charm.”
Sookee is the orphaned daughter of a notorious female thief, yet it is Hideko who lives in a golden prison. She also endures psychological torture from the Korean lord of the manor, her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a strict, violent old pervert and bookworm who makes her read erotic stories to a group of lecherous men. And the innocent-looking Hideko eventually experiences what she reads with Sookee.
Torture is also omnipresent – Part Three is particularly graphic, the antithesis of the sultry scenes. I won’t say more.
Each part contains several flashbacks. While they are a necessary component meant to explain how the the events in each part are all tied together, sometimes feel unnecessarily lengthy. He could have easily left 30 minutes of film on the cutting floor. Nevertheless, he manages to surprise us in almost every scene, every frame. It carries Park Chan-wook’s aesthetic, saturated colors drenched in noir.
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