Saturday, 16 July 2016

NZIFF Film Review: "The Handmaiden" ("아가씨") (2016).

"From Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed director of Oldboy, Thirst and Stoker, comes a bold new vision"
with The Handmaiden (아가씨). This South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook, adapted by Park and Syd Lim, and adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Set in 1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a girl is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle. But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.

After making his English-language debut with Stoker (2013), South Korea's most notorious modern auteur, Park Chan-wook, has returned to his boundary-pushing roots. Director Park has always been known for his films that contain brutal subject matter, sexually explicit material and arty violence and gore. But this film pushes his boundaries even further. He achieved this by exploring two of the most taboo topics, particularity in Korean society. The first is the Japanese Colonial setting. For more then seventy years, Koreans have been haunted by the Japanese Colonial period and scarred by the atrocities committed under Japanese rule. When asked why was it important to explore this dark chapter in his nation's history, director Park replied: "It’s important for films to explore the independence movement and anti-colonialism. But unlike many Korean dramas, which tend to automatically depict the Japanese as villains, my characters aren’t good or evil just by virtue of being Korean or Japanese. My story is about individual lives set during a particular era. I did not try to isolate the story by removing it from historical events, nor did I allow history to overpower the narrative. I felt it was important to portray the changing spirit of the time, however, such as class conflicts, women’s issues, as well medical issues and how mental illnesses were feared and led to prison-like confinement." The other was homosexuality. To most Koreans, this is an embarrassing aspect of human life as South Korea is a predominately Catholic/Christian nation. As to why he felt that it was a topic he wanted to explore, he responded: "From the larger scheme of things I am a genre filmmaker... Even though I explore such a genre-specific topic as homosexuality, it was not my intention to make a human rights film showing individuals overcoming discrimination. Similar to how I wanted to focus on individuals living through the colonial era rather than a story about the colonial era itself, I always wanted to create a movie that portrayed [homosexual romance] as something natural, as just a normal part of life." It is this mindset that has made director Park become the virtual face of contemporary South Korean cinema ever since his 2003 Cannes Grand Prix-winning Oldboy propelled him to international prominence, carving out a reputation for onscreen extremism. The Handmaiden marks director Park's third entry into Cannes, after the controversial Thirst in 2009. The film was known the first mainstream Korean film to feature full-frontal male nudity. Which divided Korean audiences and critics alike. It was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won Prix du Jury along with Fish Tank.

The film stars Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Cho Jin-woong, Moon So-ri and Kim Hae-sook. The degrees of eroticism, shock, the foreshadowing and throwbacks throughout (both visual and in dialogue) all seem to go hand-in-hand with the amazing performances by the female and male leads. Kim Min-hee is at her finest as the slightly disturbed Lady Hideko. She shows fragility and elegance in the most subtle ways, never overplaying a character that could turn into the cliched romantic love interest with just the tiniest bit of scene-chewing. Lady Hideko exploits Sook-hee's naivety with her every glance and gesture. My affection for the film also has mostly to do with the performance of Kim Tae-ri as Soo-kee, a naive housemaid whose character arch dramatically transforms as the romance escalates. It is with the two female leads that their romance radiates a strange kind of unnerving yet seductive aura. And the two male leads, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong, are both menacing, with Ha's scoundrel swagger to do whatever it takes and Cho's malevolent dedication and discipline to his library. It is these qualities within the two men that make them incredibly dangerous as the snake that guards Uncle Kouzuki's library of unspeakable literature.

Boldly erotic, and playfully ponderous, Park Chan-Wook's visceral The Handmaiden is a strange, powerful tale of love. The film rips open its exquisite dress, and its various twisted undergarments, to fully reveal its explosive essence of the sexual. It is definitely not for the squeamish. Perhaps no auteur is as suited to this kind of storytelling as director Park, a man who has made a career out of films full of sexual perversity and unusual romances. It is a much more interesting than expected, as it plays with the conventions of the lesbian romance and taking us on a very entertaining ride to places that, conceptually, we might not want to go. These days we are so accustomed to thrillers that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it's a shock to find a movie in which the story, however explicit, makes a statement and has a purpose. The film is constantly engaging, suitably intense, certainly different, always suspenseful and even stylishly directed, but it is not Oldboy. The film may not be the best film director Park has made, but his willingness to try something different makes it a decidedly fresh entry into his body of work.

Simon says The Handmaiden (아가씨) receives:

Also, see my review for Stoker.

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