The Handmaiden review: Park Chan-Wook’s new erotic thriller, inspired by the British novel Fingersmith, goes for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, 2016.
The Handmaiden review from the Cannes Film Festival, May 2016.
Back in 2003, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook shocked the world with his impressive thriller Old Boy, a film that put him firmly on the map, and since then he has coninued to delight with the likes of the impressive Lady Vengeance, Thirst and his English language debut Stoker. Old Boy won the Grand Prix here in Cannes in 2013, and Thirst was awarded the Jury prize ten years later. In 2016, Chan-Wook returns with The Handmaiden (Agassi as it is known in its native tongue, and Mademoiselle here in France). Can he make it a hat-trick of gongs in the south of France.
Officially playing in-competition and based on British writer Sarah Waters’ crime novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is set in 1930s Korea. Spit into three definite acts, the film follows a young girl named Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired as a handmaiden (a personal maid or female servant) to a Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), who lives a very secluded life in a remote estate with her domineering uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong). Sookee however, is hiding a very large secret; she is actually a thief, hired by a sinister opportunist known only as Count (Ha Jung-Woo), who he hopes may be able to help him elope with the wealthy heiress before robbing her of all of her cash and leaving her holed up in the local mental asylum. Things go to plan once Sookee is planted in the role of the handmaiden, that is until unknown emotions are awoken which may alter the plan quite drastically indeed.
There are a couple of things to expect when you roll up to see a film by the talented Park Chan-Wook; a pretty slow-burning but quite intense, and sometimes shocking story, some extremely beautiful visuals, possibly an octopus and regular household objects being used as weapons somewhere along the line. You also hope for an involving couple of hours at the movies too, and thankfully you get all of those things in The Handmaiden – once it gets going.
One may struggle through the opening act of this well structured, though very draggy erotic thriller; it is one of those films that takes its time in getting where its going, drip feeding the audience as it trundles along the very long path to the good stuff. Old Boy suffered a little bit with that, but what it did do was at a certain point make you sit upright in your seat and pay full attention, just at the moment when you thought about checking out. The Handmaiden is the same. As soon as it hits the end of that first act you’re 100% invested, involved and willing to stick with it until the twisted end.
The Handmaiden has an almost Hitchcockian feel to it, most noticeable when we enter the second act and get the same story told from another person’s point of view, which is why it is absolutely paramount that you go into the film knowing as little about the set-up as possible – so apologies if I’ve ruined that for you – I tried my best to keep minor-spoilers to an absolute minimum. Those who know the source material, Waters’ 2002 historical tale Fingersmith which was adapted into a BBC TV series with Sarah Hawkins back in 2005, will know the direction in which the story takes us, though Chan-Wook’s version whisks us away with exotic visuals, poetic camera moves and most of all, furious intensity. I, being one to go in cold not knowing too much about it, was absolutely blown away, much like I was when I first saw Old Boy nearly 13 years ago.
Chan-Wook’s latest is wonderfully acted, and the two actresses playing Lady Hideka (Kim Min-Hee) and Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), so essential to it all coming together, are truly breathtaking; their chemistry so perfect, and their sexual intensity electric.
As previously mentioned, Chan-Wook’s frequent DOP Chung-hoon Chung‘s photography is breathtaking, each shot planned and framed within an inch of its life, and executed to polished perfection.
While I wasn’t as satisfied coming away from this as I was with some of Chan-Wook’s previous work, particularly Old Boy, his 2016 offering for the Palme d’Or is up there with his best. The first third plods and there is a scene right at the very end which really could have been omitted, but all in all, this is top-notch stuff from one of world cinemas great working auteurs and it even has an octopus.
Furiously intense, utterly captivation, but most of all, utterly entertaining. One of the best of the 69th Cannes Film Festival so far.
The Handmaiden review by Paul Heath at the Cannes Film Festival, May 2016.
The Handmaiden is awaiting a UK and US release date.