THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)
DIRECTOR: Park Chan-Wook
WRITERS: Park Chan-Wook, Chung Seo-kyung (from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters)
CAST: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
You may be too young to know or too old to remember but Channel 4 in the 1980s used to have an eclectic choice of arty independent and World Cinema films. Now you get a few on Film Four but Channel 4 was a main outlet for interesting cinema not shown on the BBC or ITV channels. Channel 4 also used to, for a short period between 1986 and 1987 have a ‘Red Triangle’ on certain films to advise of sexual scenes and material that may be considered controversial. Not surprisingly the films with a ‘Red Triangle’ guaranteed nudity and erotic scenes causing audience figures to actually rise. After some moaning from the likes of Mary Whitehouse – a right-wing puritanical harpy who was a self-appointed anti-everything woman – the ‘Red Triangle’ was vanquished by Channel 4, but not before gaining notoriety and publicity.
As a teenager I used to look forward to the more risqué content on Channel 4 as the Internet was at the virgin stage and yet to be invented; so titillation was often confined to late night films on a Friday night. Flash forward thirty years and because I’m more mature and it’s very easy to access pornography online I’m not a big fan of overtly sexual material in mainstream or independent features. Not sure why but I prefer subtlety and suggestion over all-out copulation. In Park Chan-Wook’s majestic erotic con-artist thriller there are some wonderfully subtle erotic scenes which raise the blood pressure and enhance the characterisation. There is also some serious scissoring between the two female leads going on too which in my view pushes the boundaries between eroticism, controversy and exploitation. However, this is the line Chan-Wook has always skipped along in classic films such as: Old Boy (2003), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), and Thirst (2009).
The Handmaiden is set in 1930’s Korea amidst the backdrop of the Japanese occupation and the cultural differences between the two nations are expertly drawn and examined in the story. Class differences are also highlighted in a rich text which finds Sook-hee seconded to look after the neurotic Lady Izumi Hideko, who is a ward and being groomed for marriage by her controlling Uncle Kouzuki. I will not give any further of the plot away but safe to say it is an incredibly complex narrative structured into three parts which overlap different perspectives within flashbacks and contrasting character voiceovers and angles. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely, this is a beautifully shot period masterpiece which I took great pleasure in viewing. In my view the running time was arguably over-long and a couple of the more overt sex scenes could have been trimmed. Nonetheless, the film had me gripped throughout.
Park Chan-Wook directed a gem of a noir thriller called Stoker (2013) for his first Hollywood film, but here is a bigger-budgeted and thematically richer cinema affair. It takes a complex con-artist-twisting-plot and imbues it with an erotically charged and explicit feminist love story which finds sharp-witted female characters overcoming the dominant and deviant patriarchal beast. Moreover, Chan Wook’s screenplay is a masterful adaptation of the original novel, the wonderfully titled Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Christopher Nolan, Jacques Audiard, Michael Haneke to name a few, Chan-Wook’s work is always a must-see-at-the-cinema-event and you don’t need a ‘Red Triangle’ to ensure you watch it.
(Mark: 9 out of 11)