If there is one thing for certain with contemporary cinema, it’s that international cinema goes disappointingly unrecognised in the wider community. Diving into any one of these more obscure films, one will find stories and styles that exemplify popular traits, and excel them beyond what has already been made of them in commercial filmmaking.
This is exactly the case with Park Chan-wook’s newest foray into directing with The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, and a film that follows the trend of erotic thrillers typified by the likes of The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl and (less successfully) Fifty Shades Darker. However, as suggested by my opening, The Handmaiden is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Firstly, from its setup, you wouldn’t suspect it of dabbling in the more alluring plot elements of the erotic thriller. Without giving too much away, the film circles around the character of Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri), a young woman raised as a pickpocket, arranged to serve as handmaiden to the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), daughter to the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The organisation of this contract is revealed early on to be accountable to a scheming conman (Ha Jung-woo), who adopts the name ‘Count Fujiwara’ and poses as a noble, using Sookhee as the secret eyes and ears to his plan for pilfering the Lady Hideko’s inheritance.
This narrative outline seems a little content in settling in familiar, comfortable territory, implementing a hustler storyline akin to the likes of 1973’s The Sting. However, as is slowly revealed, Park Chan-wook has a whole roster of tricks up his sleeve, slowly revealing the complexity of this darkly sensual and baroque film.
Firstly, The Handmaiden deals with sexual content, particularly in the relationship that begins to blossom between Sookhee and Lady Hideko. This is important in itself, as it is the first open depiction of an LGBT relationship in Korean cinema. However, what Park achieves here is deeply reputable: scenes of explicit sexual action that do not come off as uncomfortable voyeuristic windows that fulfil any sort of erotic instinct. Instead, what these scenes portray are an emotional connection that tethers these women together, liberating them of patriarchal constraints: we, as viewers, feel joy at witnessing these societally confined women express their desires in a way that is free of any man’s interference. This places The Handmaiden in a league above the recent efforts of American films, such as Fifty Shades Darker’s hilariously histrionic exhibition of sexual relations: Park Chan-wook drops the awkwardness and injects much needed emotion into these moments.
Moreover, the narrative itself is ingeniously produced and flows with such finesse that the film’s runtime will fly by. Scribed by Chung Seo-kyung and Park Chan-wook himself, the screenplay flourishes as it spirals through revelations and exposures that you will not see coming: it is rare, as the avid filmgoer I am, that I get at all surprised by a thriller’s narrative reveals, yet The Handmaiden succeeds with flying colours. I have strayed from any sort of spoiler, and want you to do the same. This film is best discovered with an open mind, as it is with this that you’ll get the most out of it.
The direction is also faultless. Working with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Park does little to stabilise his camera: it is always mobile, always looking for a fascinating angle or identifiable position that allows us to comprehend character motivation and clarification. The pace of the cinematography fits well with the tone of the narrative, always leaving you a little more suspicious of what it is showing you than what initially meets the eye.
That’s not to say that The Handmaiden is afraid of slowing its pace. There are moments of real character development, constructing layers of tension that culminate in moments of cathartic release that really solidify our engagement with the film. This includes one’s interpretation of and rapport with the setting. The production design is ambitious and prosperous in its rich narrative detail. Capturing interior architecture of illustrious beauty, and exterior grounds of the most vivacious shades of purple and green, the world feels alive and informs the character’s sentiments. By enabling us these moments to immerse ourselves in the film’s environment, Park Chan-wook transgresses any commercial attempt at constructing a worthwhile thriller.
It is, altogether, a marvellous piece by the South Korean director. It is a film that goes beyond what is inherently a rather conventional narrative outline, unafraid in its visual representations and unhindered in its aesthetic expressions. This is a film that is acutely planned, expertly executed and perfectly entertaining. One must not forget that this is not as morose as Gone Girl. Park Chan-wook imbues some genuine, dark humour into his film, relieving us of our well-clenched fists and racing hearts. Furthermore, while at times it may seem like a head-trip into the mind of the Marquis de Sade, it is also intensely enjoyable to behold, liberating in its portrayal of women and thrilling in its twists and turns.
I’m afraid I can’t quite ascertain people’s apathy for international cinema, but if I’m going to persuade you into broadening your cinematic tastes, The Handmaiden is the perfect place to start. A visually and narratively arresting piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook has outdone himself, crafting a superior thriller and an exhilarating experience that you will never forget.