Keswick Film Club - Reviews - The Handmaiden

Reviews - The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Reviewed By John Porter

The Handmaiden
The Handmaiden
The penultimate offering from Keswick Film Club's current season was Sunday's 'The Handmaiden' (2016, Park Chan-wook), a sumptuous tale of betrayal and eroticism set in 1930s Korea. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired as handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the lonely niece of an eccentric aristocrat, and is soon told the family secrets of the house. Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) longs to be Japanese, collects erotica, and his using of Hideko's Aunt to read from forbidden texts for the pleasure of noble acquaintances led to her suicide with a rope on the garden cherry tree. Hideko is now the voice of her uncles readings. It is then revealed in flashback that Sook-hee is not merely a handmaiden, but a pickpocket planted into position by a conman known as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) who plans to marry Hideko for her fortune before having her committed to an asylum.

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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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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