Reviews - The Handmaiden
Reviewed By John Porter
Upon this premise Park Chan-wook builds forth his narrative in layers. Text on the screen divides the movie into chapters, and part one is told from the viewpoint of Sook-hee. Exploring her dealings with both Fujiwara and Hideko, we are shown her emotions for the latter develop into love, so tangling the deceptions for all concerned. After setting up Hideko as the victim in this way, part two then reveals more duplicity and hidden alliances from the point of view of Hideko and Fujiwara, while part three finally knots all the swindles together into a conclusion.
The movie is structurally beautiful, never cheapening the plot devices for the sake of immediate shock but using each twist as a revelation to show a new aspect on what has gone before. It is constructed with precision and delicacy, and in this way too is the plot unwrapped; Park's grasp of angling the narrative from specific standpoints ensuring that we are swept along in the tiers of shifting truth like a thriller, not second guessing outcomes like a who-done-it.
On top of all this, the opulence of the art direction, decor, and cinematography also contribute to the all-consuming seduction of the house and relationships within it, every tool at the directors disposal being used to envelope the viewer. Park creates a world of lavish texture as labyrinthine as his story, and here too it is easy, and pleasurable, to get lost. The colours are rich and saturated with period interiors appearing luxurious, while outdoor sequences are laced with deep greens and silver moving over the grasses. The director's trademark compositions of observing proceedings with tracking shots outside windows and along walkways are abundant and further focus the point of view during each section of the movie.
A seething threat of violence hangs over the proceedings in the shape of Uncle Kouzuki, with a sequence in his basement of antique 'book binding' machines revealing an enormous kraken writhing in the corner alongside jars of body parts pickled in formaldehyde. This edge of menace serves not only to add tension to the already tight narrative but also brings a very physical danger to the position of the characters, especially that of Hideko and Sook-hee, women in love attempting to outwit violent and overbearing men. Even for a Park Chan-wook movie the relationships between the protagonists are obsessive, and his actors are believable in their complex and devious passions.
'The Handmaiden' intoxicates with details: Whether it be with isolated noises of significant objects in the sound design, or with textures and colours of exotic situations, the movie works from the base upwards, tiny instances in its structure slowly gaining importance, small material components forming much larger substances in aura and tone until the final reel completes a creation of great beauty.
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18th Keswick Film Festival 16-19th February 2017
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