With a demented streak of originality and an astonishing level of beauty to behold, Hollywood should really take a pointer or two from Park Chan-wook’s latest Korean effort. And that doesn’t mean they should remake it…
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It’s the 1930’s in Korea, and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is in need of a new handmaiden to live in her secluded countryside mansion and serve under her. A young girl named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired, unbeknownst to the Lady that she is in fact a pick-pocket recruited by the cunning Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) as part of an elaborate plot to help seduce her into marrying him, so he may rob her of her wealth and have her imprisoned in a mental asylum. This becomes severely complicated however, as Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko develop an unexpected attraction towards each other.
Unlike the vast majority of films released this year, it can honestly be said that Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Stoker) latest film The Handmaiden is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. Sure, there is the essence of a traditional tale of revenge flavouring the story, but the way it is presented, the characters it depicts and the unpredictable paths it leads us down make this a truly unique experience. Most surprisingly, Chan-wook’s most effective trick is defying our expectations of him as a filmmaker, upending his usual matters of violence and nihilism by entangling more upbeat motifs of love, eroticism and even humour amidst the cold betrayals, oppression and shocking revelations.
At least one thing expected is proven true – visually, this is a truly sumptuous affair. Lady Hideko’s mansion is an incredibly beautiful environment that begs to be visited, but also spouts an aura of danger that seems to warn that it is best admired from a distance. It’s truly breathtaking, poetically painted like a fairy tale by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung.
At the centre of a fantastical creation is a strikingly raw love story; a driven connection between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko. Chan-wook defended the graphic sex scenes between the pair as a necessity for the film, and they are where the film feels most real. It’s the moments of intimacy that earn this outrageous yarn its impact and immersion.
It’s all quite a strange mix, but it works wonders. Chan-wook’s ambition consistently pays off, but here he’s combined that with extraordinary restraint in scenes that could have easily been gratuitous and pushed to their excess, and it’s resulted in enough intrigue to fill several movies.
Best seen with as little knowledge of its contents as possible, this is extremely entertaining and original cinema, and a terrific antidote to the reheated and recycled dreck usually clogging up theatres.
The Handmaiden is available in Australian cinemas from October 13
Image courtesy of Dreamwest Pictures