Set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, “The Handmaiden” — selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival — is a stunning film. From its gorgeous cinematography to its impressive cast, the newest film from Director Park Chan-wook is as visually captivating as it is narratively complex. Like many of Chan-wook’s films, it is a twisted, revenge-centered psychological thriller guaranteed to entertain.
Chan-wook is known for his complex tales, and “The Handmaiden” is no exception. A master con artist who goes by the name Count Fujiwara, played by Jung-woo Ha, enlists a young Korean pickpocket, Sook-hee, played by Kim Tae-ri, to aid him in seducing a wealthy Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko, played by Korean A-list actress Kim Min-hee. Lady Hideko, pale and beautiful, lives a sheltered life in a sprawling but isolated mansion with her Uncle Kouzuki, a stern man with an unusual fascination with books. It is to this magnificent mansion — half – English architecture and half – traditional Japanese design — that Sook-hee is sent under the guise of a handmaiden. Her mission: coax her new mistress into falling for the Count.
Chan-wook’s inspiration for the movie — and its unique style of storytelling — was Welsh author Sarah Water’s novel “Fingersmith.” He masterfully transplants the plot of “Fingersmith,” which is set in the Victorian era, into 1930s South Korea in the midst of the Japanese occupation. This setting breathes new life into Water’s original story. Lady Hideko’s liberation from her sheltered life develops new layers of meaning when it takes place in an oppressed society: Her craving for freedom echoes an entire nation’s cry for independence. Overall, Chan-wook offers a tasteful but dark spin of the original piece. It is certainly not an adaptation of the book; it stands on its own while drawing inspiration for certain key elements.
The film is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character. Each part tells the same story, but each narrator fills in details that others cannot. While each individual’s story is unique enough to stand alone, they flow together effortlessly. This style of storytelling has its obvious flaws: All three narrations are of essentially the same events, making repetitiveness inevitable. However, gripping twists in perspective make each tale all the more intense.
Chan-wook excels in his ability to draw out deep and conflicting feelings from his audiences. He is known for movies without a clear protagonist and plots that always seem to have a truly evil villain but never have a definite hero. Sook-hee seems to be the archetypal heroic protagonist; not only is she a victim of a poverty-ridden community struggling to make a living for herself, but she is also a pickpocket who schemes with the Count to strip Lady Hideko of her riches. The next most obvious choice is Lady Hideko, but she, too, has secrets and an agenda of her own. This lack of a hero is both startling and fascinating. Without a clear idea of for whom the audience should root, agonizing sympathy in one moment is followed by fiery anger in the next — sometimes toward the same character.
Chan-wook’s obsession with exploring taboos in Korean culture makes a fierce resurgence in the 144-minute film, a significant portion of which features drawn out lesbian love scenes. In a society where sex — especially gay sex — is considered taboo, such an explicit portrayal is unusual. Societal norms have not stopped Chan-wook before: In previous movies, he has experimented with incest and extreme sadistic violence to incredible acclaim.
His portrayals, while shocking, are not solely incorporated for their shock value. These taboo topics are presented with exquisite imagery, making it hard to look away. The film is, simply put, gorgeous. Each stunning backdrop is designed to heighten the drama, as well as to serve as a bit of eye candy through a mainly grim storyline.
In every way possible, Park has delivered on what his fans have grown to love him for: a grim storyline told through remarkably beautiful.