Erotic, ex­otic and fully em­pow­ered

Park Chan-wook’s film has al­ready pro­voked con­tro­versy for its sex­ual con­tent but is not the bloody spec­ta­cle most will ex­pect, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - Tara Brady

THE HAND­MAIDEN Di­rected by Chan-wook. Star­ring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong . Cert 18, lim­ited re­lease, 145 mins “There are some­times power ou­tages but don’t be afraid,” ex­plains a house­keeper as she leads a re­cently ap­pointed maid through a labyrinthine es­tate that causes one to yearn for the com­par­a­tive cor­dial­ity of Re­becca’s Man­der­ley. The vast property be­longs to the mys­te­ri­ous Ja­panese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an odd young woman who has been raised to marry her mon­strous uncle. The new girl, Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri), is a thief and a forger who has taken her post at the be­hest of a flim­flam artist known as “Count Fu­ji­wara”.

The con­man hopes that Sookhee will per­suade Hideko to run off with him in­stead. The plan is sim­ple: Fu­ji­wara will marry Hideko, com­mit her to a men­tal asy­lum, and split the for­tune with Sookhee and her crim­i­nal fam­ily. But then Sookhee be­gins to fall for her enig­matic mis­tress. And Sookhee’s game may not be the only con in play.

Finger­smith, Sarah Wa­ters’ story of clan­des­tine fe­male lovers em­broiled in Vic­to­rian-era houses, isn’t an ob­vi­ous choice for Park Chan-wook. The South Korean direc­tor, whose Vengeance tril­ogy came to dom­i­nate cin­e­matic dis­course in the ear­li­est years of the mil­len­nium, is of course fa­mil­iar with sub­terfuge and mys­tery: Old­boy’s tor­mented pro­tag­o­nist must find the cap­tor who has kept him im­pris­oned for 15 years, whereas Lady Vengeance’s tit­u­lar hero­ine plans an in­tri­cate, bloody re­venge as a kindly

model pris­oner. But he has not, to date, dis­played a knack for LGBT his­tor­i­cal drama.

Park reimag­ines Wa­ters’ story in Ja­panese-oc­cu­pied Korea, a trans­plant that adds in­ter­est­ing colo­nial and racial di­men­sions. He and his reg­u­lar fe­male screen­writ­ing partner Jeong Seo-kyeong care­fully in­cor­po­rate the fe­male gaze into this rous­ing in­trigue.

Hav­ing pre­miered in Cannes last year, The Hand­maiden came un­der fire for its many ex­plicit les­bian sex scenes, crit­i­cisms that echoed those lev­elled at Ab­del­latif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warm­est Colour when it screened at the same fes­ti­val. Can a male film­maker pos­si­bly “get” such ma­te­rial?

Park’s sex scenes, as if in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the query, play around with per­spec­tive, and are clev­erly coun­ter­pointed by the film’s de­pic­tion of male sex­ual ap­petite and of pornog­ra­phy as lu­di­crous and sadis­tic.

Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, who makes her fea­ture de­but, keep you guess­ing un­til the sat­is­fac­tory de­noue­ment and strike a sen­sual note that’s main­tained by Chung Chung-hoon’s drop-dead gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy and the lav­ish pro­duc­tion and cos­tume de­signs of Ryu Seong-hee and Cho Sang-kyung.

This is eas­ily the most lav­ish pe­riod piece of the past year, com­posed of strik­ing, be­witch­ing tableaux that could of­ten pass for an­cient scrolls or wood­cut­tings. The tricksy plot stream­lines and im­proves the fi­nal messy sec­tion of the source novel, to tease and mis­lead even the most as­tute viewer. Not the bloody spec­ta­cle we were ex­pect­ing from the Stoker direc­tor but a grand vi­sion nonethe­less.

The fe­male gaze Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee in The Hand­maiden

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