In a world increasingly defined by mediocrity and a lack of imagination, Park Chan-wook remains one of few beacons in the dark of modern cinema. Martin Carr reviews this sumptuous masterpiece…
Park Chan-wook is more cunning than a card shark playing with loaded decks. Ornate structures are held together like a tower of playing cards, delicately balanced by elements wholly reliant upon one another. Cloaking his latest creation in opulent clothing, sumptuous narrative segues and decadent displays of flesh and violence, The Handmaiden walks onto a cinematic stage already populated by Stoker and his break out hit Oldboy.
Taking his time with every frame, tracking shot and production piece Park has conceived an old fashioned thriller, mansion house murder mystery and femme fatale film noir wrapped in Eastern promise. Splitting this tale into three distinct parts each told from varying viewpoints, The Handmaiden of our title played elegantly by a sultry Kim Tae-ri floors you from her first moments on screen. Using voice over both as exposition and internal monologue we watch Sook-Hee become party to a devious plot. Pacing events perfectly Park shows his mastery of structure by revealing things piece by piece, building back story in flashback and relying rarely on shock tactics.
His other femme fatale portrayed by Kim Min-Lee shows equal levels of guile and cunning in the face of adversity. Shrinking under the perverse cosh of a barbaric uncle obsessed with book binding, pornographic readings and ritualistic torture, she plays her hand with care and restraint. Surprises within The Handmaiden are built up through familiarity before Park pulls the rug from beneath us. Never missing a step in terms of period detail, production design or story smarts this starts out as Merchant Ivory before switching into Hitchcock by way of Eli Roth.
Never needlessly grotesque without good reason such is the ingenuity on display here that a second viewing is recommended. Coming in at just short of two hours thirty The Handmaiden never drags, sags half way through or delivers anything short of calculated cinematic closure. Erotically charged and not for the prudish, this is unflinchingly graphic sexual congress as befits a director who sanctioned the consumption of a live octopus on screen.
Performances across the board are universally faultless, both measured, nuanced and committed in ways Western cinema could learn from. All four principals from the uncle through to the heiress give flawless interpretations, while Park’s younger members equip themselves well. Never over egging the pudding or hamming things up for effect, there is a sense of an ensemble cast delivering together on Park’s bigger picture as he passes subtle political comment on Japanese and Korean governments past and present without being either blatant or cynical in the delivery.
But beyond that The Handmaiden is a good old fashioned film noir reboot designed to defy genre expectations without messing with formula. Majestic in construction and containing gilt edged greatness shot through with sumptuous set design, Park remains a director of both true genius and undeniable originality. In a world increasingly defined by mediocrity and a lack of imagination, Park remains one of few beacons in the dark of modern cinema.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Released: 2016 / Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country: South Korea / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed the theatrical version of The Handmaiden courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye. The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray August 7.