VIFF 2016—South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) adapts Fingersmith, the Victorian-era, historical novel by British author Sarah Waters, relocating the story to 1930s annexed Korea under colonial Japapanese rule with predictably salacious results. The Handmaiden (aka Agassi) is a rapturously twisty, gothic melodrama with a sumptuous and stylish pedigree.
Park is a master of suspense with a crackling sense of creating narrative tension in his dark films. Here, he turns a simple con artist story and twists it into a sexy, erotic thriller. The Handmaiden could easily been a low art exercise in exploitation and genre filmmaking told explicitly through the male gaze. Instead, Park elevates the material mixing different genres, influences, and styles of filmmaking to craft a completely satisfying thriller centred on female empowerment while relegating the male characters to duplicitous side characters.
Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, her tricky handmaiden, have electric chemistry together as their dynamic relationship slowly boils. Ha Jung-woo is slick and charismatic as a con artist looking to swindle Hideko's fortune away from her while navigating a messy partnership with Sook-hee. The writing, editing, and execution of the complicated but entirely engrossing narrative is an impressive feat of cinematic storytelling.
The film explores issues of class, ethnicity, and even pornography in a thematically rich yet entertaining way as it slowly reveals itself to be a much more sophisticated drama than first thought. While complex and thoughtful in its exploration of past society's structures and restrictions, it delights in cleverly deconstructing contemporary themes of sexual passion and taboo desires.
Chan-wook has constructed a masterfully tense and unnerving Korean portrait of class and colonialism. It's a twisty, sexy thriller in the Hitchcock mould wrapped in an East meets West period style. It's both a trashy and sophisticated melodrama set amongst the Japanese influenced upper crust of Korean society at the time while focusing on petty thieves and con artists with an explicitly erotic bent. It's an absolutely high cinematic achievement in narrative storytelling and entertainment.
The Handmaiden screened at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama series.
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