The latest from Chan-wook Park (Old Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Stoker) is a story adapted from the Victorian stage of source material Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith and placed in 1930s Korea, when it was a colony of Japan. A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but is secretly part of a plot to rob her.
This is Park's first film since he attempted a foray into Hollywood with Stoker. Despite what naysayers may tell you, there's definite merit to Park's former coming of age fable. It's still one of the most visually sumptuous and beautifully edited films of that year, and its falters were mostly due to the screenplay which Park, for the first time, did not have a hand in.
This time, he returns all in with a screenplay that contains the most dialogue of all his films, one that is fittingly twisted and darkly humorous. Words are more important than ever before, as we see where they're from, how they're shaded, conveyed, and how they can hold completely different meanings when tasted in different mouths. Language is a theme here -- both culture and language were held hostage by the Japanese during this time period and there's an unconscious and simultaneously deliberate struggle for dominance. Park flits from language to language, from cultural influence to the other, as the story blooms in a mansion that has both Western and Eastern influences. Characters are held allure by the beauty of Japanese culture even as they resent or fear its hold on them. That same duality is reflected in the relationship between Handmaiden Sooki (newcomer Tae-Ri Kim) and her mistress Hideko (Min-Hee Kim).
You can't have a Chan-wook Park movie without style, and Handmaiden has it in spades. Combining a digital camera with a 1970s anamorphic CinemaScope Lens, Park is able to evince a completely unique look to his shots. Old collaborator cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (who is a veritable genius), helps swoop the camera around, allowing us to expand into the mansion as if curtains are opening before us or to emphasize character perspective. As a film that depends heavily on narrative point of view, Park selectively uses handheld (previously unused in his carefully constructed films) when showing us a direct point of view, to accentuate a sense of voyeurism, or to remind us of how fragile our objectivity is. Ryu Seong-Hee won this year's Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist this year at Cannes for his work and it's well-deserved. The mansion is stunning, even as its personality stands divided.
It may be difficult to speak on this film without at least touching on its erotic nature. Previously, I had difficulty with Park's films. Although they are without a doubt some of the most beautiful movies I've seen, the nature of their violence or their rather disturbing narratives have dissuaded me from rewatching them frequently. However, more prevalent here than ever before is Park's love for his characters. There is a tenderness and a joy that he feels for them and that he allows them to feel that never felt quite right in his other films. Here it's not the actions, the violence, or the sexual acts that are important -- it is the emotions and the motivations behind them. The female characters within the film have suffered the violence of male gaze throughout their lives and it would be egregious for Park to exploit that further with his camera lens. Thankfully, he does not.
Tae-ri Kim is phenomenal as a character who shows vulnerability and spunk, a perfect pair to Min-hee Kim's subversely delicate performance. You really can't have one without the other, and this film thrives because of their tremendous skill.
Handmaiden demands careful attention to detail, not only because of its riddle of a narrative but because it's gorgeous. Draw closer to it so as not to miss a single word, glance, or rustle of silk. I promise it's worth every second.