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1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions. Written by
When going into a movie by one of your favorite directors, it is easy to set high expectations. Rarely does the film fully meet those expectations, but when it does it is something special. Such is the case with Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (Mademoiselle). He has crafted an intricately woven tale of love and betrayal that highlights everything he can do so well from heightened sexual tension to gorgeous imagery.
The film, which is an adaptation of the novel The Fingersmith, revolves around a woman who is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress. This is the very basic summary to a film that has a lot of depth underneath the surface and requires the audience's attention throughout the film. And as the plot goes on we discover the newly hired handmaiden may have some ulterior motives along with many of the other characters. Nothing is revealed too quickly and the film is split into a three-part structure that slowly pieces things together through flashbacks. It also uses a storytelling device that is typically owned by Tarantino where the same scene is shown from multiple perspectives and each adds a new layer to the story. All of these devices are used to full effect and create surprising twists on par with Park Chan-wook's Oldboy.
What is immediately apparent from the start of the film is how well Park Chan-wook's aesthetic fits into the time period. His eye for gorgeous shots and camera angles makes the house in the film look like a work of art. The grounds around the house are also highlighted so well. Wide shots and lingering camera movements let you appreciate every little detail on screen and marvel at the beauty of it all.
The score also fits in perfectly with the time period. It is never bombastic and always subtle, and perfectly captures the mood and feeling of each scene. Whether an intimate moment between the two women or a heated exchange between characters it's hard to realize how great the score is because of how organic it feels.
Framing is also a very important addition to the story. Through the use of mirrors and reflections, Park Chan-wook suggests the double-sided nature of the characters. Also, he often obstructs part of the frame with an object and hides characters behind walls or glass to suggest we may not really see everything that is going on before us. This aspect of the film in particular I feel will only get better with subsequent viewing when you can understand all of characters motivations and desires.
One thing that Park Chan-wook did so well with Stoker was creating a palpable feeling of sexual tension without using nudity or anything overtly sexual. In this film he succeeds with that throughout the entire film. Every look and every glance the two woman share conveys a longing and desire that permeates the whole film. In this film however, he continues that passion past suggestion into full on sex. There are multiple scenes with extended nudity but they are all filmed so artfully and sympathetically it always feels warranted. The scenes never feel awkward or exploitative and always are tasteful and almost poetic. Somehow despite what I was watching I still found myself admiring the camera-work and beautiful cinematography.
One thing that surprised me in the film and I have not seen in Park Chan-wook's other work is the humor. It was never slapstick and usually more circumstantial, but the whole audience laughed out loud on numerous occasions. He showed a surprisingly great understanding of timing and every joke landed. One scene in particular dealt with suicide and could have come across as insensitive or callous. Due to the perfect timing, it was hilarious and even further developed the relationship between the characters.
During the last act of the film, it does get unusually violent. There is a torture scene that seems out of place with the rest of the film. Though effective in its own right and thoroughly thrilling, it didn't sit right with me due to how subtle the rest of the film had been.
This is a film that really stays with you and will take multiple viewing to really appreciate the complex story. The first film I have seen in a long time where I continued to think about it throughout the day and had multiple conversations about all aspects of the film. With The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook has crafted a film that fully displays the craft and technical prowess he can show and it includes a story that that only gets better the more you think about it.
The Handmaiden (2016) Directed by: Park Chan-wook Screenplay by: Seo-Kyung Chung, Park Chan-wook Starring: Jung-woo Ha, Min-hee Kim, Jin-woong Jo, Tae Ri Kim Run Time: 2 hour 25 minutes
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