The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

Watched: 27 August

Park Chan-wook’s latest film another critical hit that has translated into moderate commercial success is a twisty three-parter, effectively starting out as an elaborate, class- and race-focused period con movie and then typically of Park turning into something quite different indeed: a film that easily shifts back and forth from its central queer (and often explicitly-rendered) love story to psychosexual drama and even twisted revenge thriller. It’s a delight to look at from start to finish, lushly shot by Chung Chung-hoon and showcasing excellent work by Seong-hie Ryu (production design), Sang-gyeong Jo (costume design) and Jong-hee Song (make-up and hair design); the efforts of the latter three in particular help to create a wonderful sense of time and place, The Handmaiden being set in Japanese-occupied Korea during what I am guessing to be the 1920s (though I’m no expert on the region or the era, and it could just as easily be the 1910s or 1930s).

The entire cast impresses, though the two leads – Kim Min-hee as Lady Izumi Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee – do the majority of the heavy lifting, and at least one of them is on screen for much of the film. The two women appear in a few erotic sex scenes that have proven problematic for some viewers; for what it’s worth I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on them, but this piece on Flavorwire makes for interesting reading. As with the similarly explicit Blue Is The Warmest Colour, there is a nagging sense that the director’s gender ensures questions of male fantasy and exploitation hang over the scenes.

There is a sense, as always, that Park is trying too hard. The camera is often very busy, showily moving around in a way that can be dizzying at certain points and rarely remaining still. There’s a high number of plot points and twists and turns to fit in here. Even given a running time of 145 minutes (the Director’s Cut adds another 23) I can’t help but feel that too many passages move along at breakneck pace, with few opportunities to fully digest what is going on, and why; I’d like a second viewing, whereupon I suppose I’ll be concentrating less on the story and more on the acting, the sets and other details. I don’t wish to sound too down on the film, though. It’s further evidence of Park’s strong vision and commitment to the kind of cinema that seeks to stimulate the eyes, the ears and the mind throughout, and for the most part he pulls off a labyrinthine, twisty tale. This kind of work doesn’t come about too often. (****)

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