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Michael Murphy reviews The Handmaiden, the hypnotically passionate film adaptation that will put you under a spell. 

Consider the octopus. Moist and squirming, this extra-terrestrial creature stalks the ocean’s calm depths before merging into the scenery. It spots an unsuspecting fish passing by. Before the prey can understand why this familiar patch of seabed now seems so unsettling, it feels a clammy tentacle coil around its torso.

The octopus is an ingenious hunter and has long been a sexual symbol, a tradition which director Park Chan-wook has followed to highlight suppressed and perverted desire. The mollusc performs this role in his most notorious work Oldboy, when Choi Min-sik devours it alive after his release from captivity. It appears again in The Handmaiden, encapsulating the film’s strange mixture of predation and passion.

Based on Sarah Walter’s book Fingersmith, Victorian England is traded for colonial Korea – a country writhing under Japanese oppression. The new masters have absorbed the superior and modern culture of the West, using it to carve out its own imperial hegemony in the East.

the film contains excellent dialogue delivered superbly by strong performances from the main cast

Mimicry of the masters is essential to advance up their ladders of power. Some, such as Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), have discarded their base Korean identities in the struggle to attain a Japanese one, even going so far as to adopt a new name.

This Uncle Kouzuki, in aiding the Japanese in their subjugation of the peninsula, has acquired a literal gold mine. Using this wealth, he buys his way into the circles of Japanese nobility and builds a vast gated compound in the local woods.

In this estate, he lives with his niece, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and their servants. His own wife, a Japanese noble, is dead and Kouzuki hopes to marry his niece to secure access to her vast inheritance and lineage.

However, he is not the only man with his eye on Hideko’s assets. A lowly Korean forger posing as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) aims to seduce her, enlisting the help of Nam Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) posing as her handmaiden. Their plan is to defraud Lady Hideko by marrying her to Fujiwara, then sending her to an asylum.

The story is co-written between Park and Chung Seo-kyung who borrow elements from its novelistic base. They break the narrative into three parts which are carefully stripped away, each section revealing more truth than the last.

Flowing through the narrative’s entirety are two main plots – one a tale of romance, the other of revenge. These address the film’s main themes of the struggle to reclaim love and beauty in the face of separation and predation.

his direction allows for a stunning range of emotions to be weaved into this story, with an exquisite set design that would make the BBC blush

The film contains excellent dialogue delivered superbly by strong performances from the main cast. Each actor has been carefully selected for their role, from the horrifically impassive face of Kim Hae-sook as butler-madame Sasaki to Kim Min-hee’s doll like features, fragile and unnerving. Their physical attributes match exactly with the personalities of their characters.

The main issue some may have with this film is that it perhaps places the female leads on something of a pedestal. Their relationship is one of abiding faith and harmony. The perversion is all on the part of the males. Instead, their idolised moments of lovemaking are depicted with an attention some might find excessive.

Whatever your opinions in this regard, The Handmaiden undoubtedly reinforces Park’s strong reputation as a director. His direction allows for a stunning range of emotions to be weaved into this story, with an exquisite set design that would make the BBC blush. It makes for a deceptive charm many will find difficult to escape.

Showing at The Watershed until May 4th and at The Cube cinema on May 16th and 17th.


What did you think of The Handmaiden? Let us know on @EpigramFilm.

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