The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.

 

Thirst (2009): It’s In the Blood

There are a lot of people who watched this film simply because it’s by the iconic, cult favourite, South Korean director/auteur – Chan-wook Park. Chan-wook, who also co-wrote the screenplay with  Seo-Gyeong Jeon which is based on the book Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, has not disappointed us with his version of a vampire tale.

This is completely unlike any of his ‘trilogy’ films. Of course each of the trilogy films were very different from each other. They all had a “similar” theme, but, visually they were very unalike. Park has, with Thirst, gone completely outside his comfort zone and brought us a masterpiece in the guise of Grand Guignol Theatre.

Starring Kang-ho Song and Ok-bin Kim, Thirst is a love story, horror film, thriller, comedy and a tragedy. I never realised that it was possible to cram so many genres into a single film and more importantly still be able to pull it off. Chan-wook Park has not only managed to pull it off, but he has also, once again, made a film that really is genre-less.

Kang-ho Song plays Father Sang-hyun. He volunteers at a local hospital. He ministers the sick and dying patients, and he provides absolution when they die. He also takes confessions from the staff. But this job is taking a toll on his mental well being. He suffers secretly from depression and doubt about his profession.

He volunteers to become part of an ongoing medical experiment. A medical team is battling to find a cure for a virus known as the  Emmanuel Virus (EV). It affects only Caucasian and Asian men and it is almost always fatal. Sang-hyun allows himself to be injected with an experimental vaccine. When he starts to ‘bleed-out’ he receives a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire.

He checks himself out of the experimental facility to find that he has been transformed in the public’s eyes as a ‘healer.’

He bumps into a childhood friend and gets an invite to join their Wednesday night mah-jong game. When he attends he gets re-acquainted with his friend’s adopted sister, who is now his wife. It turns out that all three spent a good part of their childhood together. The sister/wife, Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) is drawn to Sang-hyun, just like she was drawn to him when they were children.

And so begins their ‘forbidden’ love affair. An affair that will escalate to murder and an almost complete surrender to their passion. It is the first mainstream  South Korean film to feature full-frontal adult male nudity, although not the first commercial film to do so. Made on a budget of five million dollars it can boast a gross revenue of well over thirteen million dollars.

I was completely engrossed in the film from the very first frame. I had no idea where the film was going and at no point could I second guess how it would end.

I suppose that is could be classed as an erotic thriller set in a fantasy. But as I said before I believe it cannot be put in any genre and that is what we have come to expect from Chan-wook Park.

English: Park Chan-wook at the 2009 Cannes Fil...
English: Park Chan-wook at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)