Director: Park Chan-Wook
Starring: Kim Min-Hee, Kim Tae-Ri, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Jin-Woong
Run Time: 145 mins
‘The Handmaiden’ is the new film by Korean director, Park Chan-Wook, of whom I am a big fan of. Most notably, he was responsible for the original ‘Oldboy’ (although I did quite enjoy the remake by Spike Lee too) and ‘Stoker’, his English-language debut. Park Chan-Wook goes back to his roots with ‘The Handmaiden’ which is an adaptation of Sarah Water’s Victorian crime novel ‘Fingersmith’, only it has been relocated to the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea. It tells the story of Sook-hee who is recruited by Count Fujiwara to be the handmaiden of a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko. Fujiwara plans to marry her and then send her to an asylum in order to gain her inheritance. However, there are some complications to this plan. The Handmaiden’ originally was released at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and received very positive reviews. It has been on my radar ever since then and I am so pleased that it has finally received a UK release. It has taken a long enough time!
‘The Handmaiden’ is Park Chan-Wook at his best – it’s nearly perfect. It has a labyrinthine plot that is interwoven intricately and the characters are developed in an extremely assured manner. It kept me gripped throughout and as the film continues to get more nuts, I was really on board with it. What’s also impressive is that it’s not quite as blatantly violent as some of Park Chan-Wook’s films have been in the past, instead choosing to focus on story. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of brutal, sadistic violence in this film but it is used sparingly. Visually, the film is beautiful to look at – Chung Chung-Hoon’s cinematography is wonderful and there are plenty of scenery chewing shots.
The performances in this film are utterly superb and hopefully this cast will go on to have strong careers. All of the performances are very layered and the characters that are portrayed at the start of the film are not who we think they are come the end. Kim Tae-Ri as Sook-hee perhaps fares the best out of the leading characters and the film is largely portrayed through her perspective. She manages to convey the mischievousness and self-awareness her character has on this plot but like Lady Hideko, Sook-hee is also naive and child-like in nature. Kim Min-Hee and Ha Jung-Woo as Lady Hideko and Count Fujiwara are both excellent as well, their characters also going through various transformations in nature. Cho Jin-Woong as Uncle Kouzuki, a character who controls virtually all aspects of Hideko’s life is excellent in a supporting role, a sinister and serpent-like character who becomes more and more prominent as the narrative ensues.
The score by Cho Young-wuk is fitting and compliments the film very well. In an ideal world, I wish Clint Mansell would have been collaborated with Park Chan-Wook again after his sterling work on ‘Stoker’ but the score that we do get is still strong with some memorable themes. The cinematography by Chung Chung-Hoon is where the film marvels visually. He knows when to hang onto a shot and also typical camera angles that you would expect to be implemented do not happen – it is pure eye candy!
Park Chan-Wook continues to cement himself as one of the strongest directors of our time and I’m very pleased ‘The Handmaiden’ has seen the light of day in the UK. It is one of the best films of the year so far and it juggles a labyrinthine plot with visual ecstasy and very strong performances. It kept me gripped throughout its intimidating 145 minute run time and I didn’t want it to end. It left me in a trance and kept me thinking about this plot for quite a while. It isn’t playing in a lot of cinemas but this is a film I urge you to seek out – it is outstanding.