If, in your conversation about the best working directors in cinema, Park Chan-wook isn’t mentioned in anything less than glowing terms, you probably need to go away and start watching more films. Most famously known, for what is regarded as one of the best films of the previous decade, OldBoy, Park has produced a run of films over the last 15 years worthy of him being rated with the best. His latest film, The Handmaiden, maybe his finest work to date.
Based on the novel, The Fingersmith by Sarah Walters, The Handmaiden is a ripe, erotic thriller featuring Park’s darkly humorous streak and immaculate framing and cinematography.
At the film’s centre is Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko. Sheltering an air of menace and psychopathy beneath a veil of sweetness and innocence. Kim holds a hypnotic on-screen presence, one that can darkly magnetic. A charisma that makes the likes of Jennifer Lawrence seem like an actor in a made-for-TV afternoon Christmas movie.
I shouldn’t forget the other two lead performers. Ha Jung-woo as “Count Fujiwara” a Korean conman posing as a low Japanese nobleman is eerily reminiscent of a young Al Pacino. Kim Tae-ri, as Sook-Hee, a thief recruited by Fujiwara, reeled into a greater web of deceit than she realises. She and Hideko become irresistibly attracted to one another, but there is a question of who is seducing whom in this triangle, from which everything orbits around.
Park’s transposition of the source material from Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea in World War Two is effortlessly brilliant. Although one would think the gender politics for both settings make this an easier transition that it appears.
TheThe Handmaiden’s cinematography is stunning. Park nods towards costume drama and Jane Austin, with the easy, tea-room style chatting but blends it with wicked black comedy and satire. There is of course, the trademark jarring violence of Park’s work, but as we have seen before, it is delivered in a way that is neither crass nor tasteless and it has that most important ingredient; context.
Start taking notes Eli Roth, this is how extreme cinema is done.
In many ways this can be considered a unique crossover between Jane Austin and Martin Scorsese. A cross-pollination that should be enough to make anyone turn their head.
Be aware, there is no shortage of sex in The Handmaiden. It’ll make Game of Thrones look like a Sports Illustrated photoshoot by comparison, though the true eroticism is built up around those moments.
The seemingly mundane rituals between a teacher and student. The studious painting and reading. The removal of something as innocuous as a glove from a hand is drenched in sexual electricity.
The film does take a good 25-30 minutes to hit its straps but once it does, it refuses to yield its grip on your pulse. Constant, tension, slowly coiling to spring explosively in moments of release and yes that’s more deliberate eroticism by Park. It looks good, it sounds good and it is that, damn good.
If you don’t see The Handmaiden this year, you’re starving yourself of a wonderful, visual and sensory treat.