As great as Bong Joon Ho & Kim Jee-woon are, I strongly believe there is no Korean director more daring than Park Chan-Wook, dare I say, he might be the most daring director in the whole world working today. He’s the type of director that’ll never compromise his vision, whatever it may be, he’s the purest of artistic gentlemen and for that he should be applauded. Maybe his intransigence doesn’t reflect him to be a gentlemen, but he’s definitely an artist that knows no boundaries and is willing to go all the way if it guarantees him another cinematic triumph.
With my thoughts on Park now presented, I shall actually being my review of the tricky labyrinth of perspectives that is The Handmaiden. An adaptation of sorts of the Welsh novel The Fingersmith that’s been repurposed to Korea under Japanese colonialism. In doing so, not only does Park give us a gorgeous setting that mixes the Victorian influence of the novel with the rich traditions of the East presented beautifully by master cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, but he establishes a pre-existing class and nationalistic antagonism in the story that only strengthens the coil of Park’s boa-like tension. Suddenly the con-artist masquerading as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) that was formerly a Korean coal-miner is given a stronger backbone of hatred by which he acts, he’s not just a con-artist but a victimized subject of Japanese colonialism looking to flip the bird back at the Japanese aristocracy for what they did to his nation. The same can be said about Sook-hee/Tamako (Kim Tae-ri), the devious handmaiden who’s been employed by Fujiwara in his attempt to screw over the wealthy Japanese, Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo) and Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Now here is where it gets tricky, when the issues of perspective, love, and alliance are raised to their extremes in the most complex game of conning that’s been presented to the big-screen in a long time.
As any classical story, The Handmaiden is split into a perfect three-act structure that establishes the story and in a curveball to the nature of said structure repeats the story from a different perspective as its second act which bleeds perfectly into the film’s conclusion. Set-up, reveal, and resolution, it seems simple but its once you delve into the material that you notice the immense amount of layering each act contains and you recognize Park as a true disciple of Hitchcock as he’s able to pack so much meaning to something that seems rather simplistic on the surface.
Another thing that’s clearly represented, is Park’s style, as I said before he might be the most daring director working today and he wants you to know that. He delights in excess, what others may call gratuitous, he refines as a surplus of artistry. He might find himself falling back on some of his most common trademarks from time to time, especially towards the end as he doubles down and finds a way to include an octopus in a scene depicting mutilation, but one must remember its that excessive stylization that made us fall in love with Park back in 2003 with release of Oldboy, Park Chan-wook never holds back and we love him for that very reason.
We know he’s got it covered when it comes to presenting his style, but what’s most shocking is the way his style reflects on thematics. Although excessive, Park is still extremely careful in his construction, not only in the design of his set and costume (which are remarkable by the way), but the way he constructs characters, perspectives, and themes. It might seem as if everything is a result of a stylized explosion Park has ignited the screen with, when in reality its his meticulous design of the explosive that lends to the anarchic interpretation seen on screen. When it comes to dealing with the multiple perspectives presented on screen, he keeps the same train of thought, painstakingly remaining loyal to each character’s perspective and not revealing anything until the time is not just right, but perfect.
The Handmaiden is a masterpiece of perspective and an outstanding film about the elaboration of conning. The acting is superb all around, but its the actors’ dedication to Park’s vision is even more astounding. What can I say, Park Chan-wook hits it out of the park once again, maybe Stoker wasn’t the best, but he’s clearly made a rebound and I am ready for the onslaught of projects Park will unleash on us. The loyalty he demonstrates towards his innermost creative desires are immortalized as marvels once transferred onto the big-screen and who wouldn’t love to go to the movies and be blown away by the excessive creativity Park brings to it. The Handmaiden is yet another token of his brilliance, so go out there and watch it!