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Korea 2016
Directed by
Park Chan Wook
144 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

The Handmaiden

Synopsis: In WW2 occupied Korea a conman and his accomplice plan to fleece a Japanese woman of her fortune. The plan goes awry when his accomplice falls in love with her.

If there’s one identifying mark of a Park Chan Wook film, it’s transgression. He’s made revenge thrillers, family dramas, a vampire film and even a science fiction comedy, but he’s always been interested in pushing the boundaries of acceptability. In the past he’s tackled kidnapping, incest, psychopathy and more. In The Handmaiden, the things he’s interested in are Korean/Japanese relations and pornography.

The twisty tale of betrayal, cross, double-cross and triple-cross is fun, but his attention is more focused on how this plot lets him push the audience’s buttons. The Korea/Japan thing might not be immediately apparent, but there’s a longstanding resentment of the Japanese for the occupation, mixed with a kind of self-loathing fascination with the culture in some quarters. It’s been depicted in other films, most controversially in Im Sang Soo’s The President’s Last Bang, but here it’s used as a window onto a second layer of concern, Japanese pornography. The main villain of the film, Kouzuki (Jo Jin Woong) is a Korean man who wants to become Japanese. He has a huge collection of “erotic literature” that he makes his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min Hee), read to prospective buyers. Park revels in laughing at this awkward situation, creating creepy yet humourous mise en scène, needling you to squirm at it all. It’s perverse but that’s the marker of his films..

Park is also respected as a director who knows how to construct a compelling thriller and he doesn’t disappoint here. Told in three overlapping chapters, we follow the fortunes of the three main characters. Sook Hee (Kim Tae Ri), the titular handmaiden and accomplice to “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung Woo), and Lady Hideko. Each reveals more about the nature of the plots within plots, the misunderstandings leading to further complications and the slow reveal of the final outcome of everyone’s competing schemes. It’s a gleefully twisted affair, a trashy pulp story dressed up in art-house style,concealing what is really a very surreal comedy.

The Handmaiden is not Park Chan Wook’s best film, but it’s still a solidly enjoyable one. Lovers of pulp thrillers will enjoy it and so will lovers of ridiculously choreographed lesbian sex. The film is so over the top, so crazed, it’s hard to resist its charms.




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