The Hand­maiden

HK Magazine - - FILM -

Good Korean movies tend to head in one of two di­rec­tions: Sweet, tear­ful ro­mances star­ring im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful ac­tors, or sav­age dis­plays of the ugli­est and dark­est of hu­man emo­tions— also star­ring im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful ac­tors. In this lat­est work from au­teur Park Chan-wook (“Old­boy,” “Snow­piercer”), the film­maker who has sin­gle-hand­edly af­firmed a sense of cut-throat in­ten­sity unique to Korean cin­ema, you’d no doubt ex­pect the lat­ter.

But in “The Hand­maiden,” Park takes his in­ter­est in the taboo and twisted and demon­strates that he can turn his hand to sweet ro­mance too—al­beit an un­con­ven­tional one.

Park takes Welsh writer Sarah Wa­ters’ Vic­to­rian-era crime novel “Finger­smith” and shifts it to 1930s Korea un­der Ja­panese colo­nial rule. Petty thief Sook-hee (fresh-faced Kim Tae-ree), is sent by a con artist who calls him­self Count Fu­ji­wara (Ha Jung-woo) to work as a hand­maid for wealthy heiress

Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The idea is that Sook-hee will con­vince her to elope with the Count. Once they’re mar­ried, they can send Lady Hideko into the mad­house, af­ter which the con­spir­a­tors can es­cape with her mas­sive for­tune.

With his name firmly in the spot­light af­ter his “Vengeance” tril­ogy (“Sym­pa­thy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Old­boy,” and “Sym­pa­thy for Lady Vengeance”), Park’s work is well known for the re­venge fan­tasies and taboo sex­ual ten­sion that suf­fuse all his films. But his sto­ries al­ways man­age to be full of sur­prises, and “The Hand­maiden” is no ex­cep­tion.

For au­di­ences un­fa­mil­iar with the source ma­te­rial (“Finger­smith” refers both to pick­pock­et­ing and fe­male mas­tur­ba­tion), “The Hand­maiden” has a few long les­bian sex scenes, run­ning the gamut from a seem­ingly in­no­cent bath scene to what de­vel­ops into a full blown R-rated ses­sion— that ad­mit­tedly seems a touch too long and verges on the porno­graphic. While that shouldn’t be a high­light to draw in au­di­ences (but prob­a­bly will be), it’s good to note that the de­pic­tion of fe­male sex­u­al­ity in the film is very pow­er­ful—with two mes­mer­iz­ing fe­male leads, no less. Sex­u­al­ity can be a re­lease of re­pres­sion or own­er­ship, but also an ex­pres­sion of friend­ship and love.

Every move and line of di­a­logue is pur­pose­ful, ref­er­enc­ing it­self again and again to bring whole new lay­ers of mean­ing to what seems at first like a sim­ple phrase. We get a play­fully tan­gled, multi-sec­tioned plot that pans over many de­li­cious twists—shifts in time­line to show se­cret dou­ble deal­ings

(South Korea) Pe­riod Drama/Thriller. Di­rected by

Park Chan-wook. Star­ring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo. Cat­e­gory III. 145 min­utes. Opened Jun 30.

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