Although Stoker was stylistically great, coupled with the great performances from Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode, it was insignificant when compared to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. His most famous piece is probably Oldboy, which has since been remade into a less-than-forgettable Western take on the Korean classic.
The Handmaiden looked as though it was going to be a return to his usual form, with seductive sequences showered throughout the trailers. But what was brilliant was I could not make out what was going to be unravelled in the film. I managed to get to a director’s cut of The Handmaiden, which clocks in at 20 minutes longer than the theatrical release of 145 minutes, but it was clear that Park Chan-wook is back to his usual tricks with The Handmaiden.
The inspiration for this film comes from the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, which is set during the Victorian time of London. Park Chan-wook chose to instead have the film set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, but there are still Victorian influences throughout the film, including Hideko’s (Kim Min-hee) constant wearing of gloves.
Park Chan-wook chose to split the film into three sections, which works to some degree, but it does take away some of the anticipation of what is going to unfold through the subsequent parts. As the film opens with Part 1, the Japanese influence is clear as soldiers are seen marching through a poor village, home to Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri).
Sook-hee is taken to become a maid for Lady Izumi Hideko, who’s home in this lavish estate, controlled by her ominous Uncle Kouzuki. (Cho Jin-woong) The house is rife with Japanese influences throughout, from the sliding doors to the library room sporting zen gardens. Regardless Park Chan-wook manages to give each of the characters enough of a screen presence to tell their own story throughout the three sections, including Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) as he becomes involved in the story.
I won’t divulge too much information regarding the story as in true Park Chan-wook fashion is quickly descends into the twists that he has waiting for us. But the way in which the screen uncovers these is just fantastic and shows a true master class in the art of story telling.
Stoker had some really enjoyable transitions, including that hair-brushing scene into the grassy wilderness. Chan-wook has continued with this trend, as he manages to beautifully transition a shot into the night sky. Not only these transitions, but his gorgeous set designs made for some beautiful viewing including the grand manor as it experiences a intermittent power outage.
And it has to be said that The Handmaiden is very, very forthright with the eroticism that takes place within the film. It’s not a film that is to be watched with your parents, that’s for sure. But the erotic nature of these scenes do not feel out of place within the film, but rather in-tune with the narrative structure of the story as it progresses. Especially as the strange Uncle Kouzuki houses a antique erotic collection of literature, that is auctioned off to esteemed aristocratic Japanese noblemen.
As I mentioned earlier, it feels as though Park Chan-wook is back to his better work with this, as Stoker had merit but lacked the special something that featured prominently in his previous features. The Handmaiden is unbelievably stylish in what it does with some beautiful shots, but the film is continually backed by the strong cast that feature distinctly throughout the films runtime. I believe this is down the direction that Chan-wook gives the cast with confidence and gives them enough of a screen presence throughout the 160+ minutes for the audience to connect with the strong female leads and the impossible-to-dislike Count Fujiwara.
If you did like Oldboy or any of Park Chan-wook’s other pieces then I would recommend seeking out The Handmaiden due to the lavish set designs throughout, but also it being a really enjoyable way to spend two hours being involved with a story that contains love, treachery and a twist that is undeniably well played out.