More noise than signal

The Handmaiden

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

A new Park Chan Wook is always something to look forward to around these parts, even if the last film of his I’ve unreservedly enjoyed was 2003’s Oldboy, with the likes of Stoker and Thirst falling a bit flat. This adaptation – loose, apparently – of the novel Fingersmith, however has been collecting rave reviews, so is it a return to form, or another mild disappointment?

A young thief Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is placed into the household of Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) as the handmaiden of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), part of con artist Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha)’s plan to seduce Hideko, marry her and steal her money, Hideko being the heir to a great fortune.

This would go against Kouzuki’s plan to marry his neice, for much the same reasons. Creepy. But who am I to judge? #woke.

Sook-Hee is charged with gently encouraging Hideko to respond to Fujiwara’s advances, which she does with all the subtelty of a carelessly lobbed half-brick. All the while, there’s an increasing closeness between the two ladies, particularly in the face of her Uncle’s oppression and insistence on her reading volumes of erotica to a shower of perverts.

This seems to lead to a change of heart on Sook-Hee’s part, but to say much more would stray into spoiler territory, so let’s just say that things are not what they seem, and your alliances can shift if you do not keep up repayments on them.

I’ve heard this described as an erotica version of Rashomon, which if you think about it it really isn’t on any level, but it does give a useful shorthand to the feel of the structure. Presuming you’ve seen Rashomon. If you haven’t seen Rashomon, correct this error.

As for the erotica label, well, there’s certainly explicit, without being pornographic sex scenes along with some readings from them there volumes of erotica which are about as erotic as the TV Guide, but much funnier, so that’s hardly the main thrust of the film.

Instead, it’s a really great character driven drama with a strong central narrative. It’s almost an insult to say that a film has twists, given how often they are generally handled, but The Handmaiden wends closer to The Usual Suspects than M. Night Shyamalan.

It also, in common with most, perhaps all, of Chan Wook Park’s films, looks incredible. He’s always had a great eye for composition, but mixed with the period detail of the weirdly architected half-Eastern, half Western house in which the film is set makes for a real treat for the eyes.

For about three days, The Handmaiden was the best film I’ve seen this year. Neruda supplants that, but this is still an immaculately acted, shot and written story that treats is audience with respect and intelligence, and gets the highest possible recommendation I can give it. Well, that level minus one Neruda. Anyway, watch both, is what I’m getting at. Stop being awkward.