Saturday, May 27, 2017
2017 Cannes Marathon: The Handmaiden
(Winner of the Vulcan Award for Production designer Ryu Seong-hee at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival)
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is the story of a young Korean woman who is hired to serve a reclusive Japanese heiress during Japan’s occupation of Korea as she is used by a conman to swindle the heiress out of her inheritance. Directed by Chan-wook Park and screenplay by Park and Chung Seo-kyung, the film is an exploration of lust and deception where a young woman is torn in doing a job for a devious conman and her infatuation with this Japanese woman. Starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong. The Handmaiden is a ravishing yet unsettling film from Chan-wook Park.
Set in the early 20th Century during Japan’s occupation of Korea, the film revolves around a young Korean woman who is part of a scheme to defraud a Japanese heiress with the aid of a conman pretending to be a count. It’s a film that explores not just a young woman torn into the work she’s doing as she falls for this heiress. It’s also a film that is about a world that is quite intense where women are used as some form of object whether it’s for desire or to serve men in the sickest of ways. The film’s screenplay by Chan-wook Park and Chung Seo-kyung would have this unique three-act structure as it would play into the perspective of its three central characters in the heiress in Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the titular character whose name is Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), and the conman who pretends to be a count named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). All of which are dealing with Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) who is this eccentric yet perverse collector of rare erotic novels.
The first act is about Sook-hee being the handmaiden for Hideko as she is aware of what she has to do but she is also very naïve about the world that Hideko lives in as she’s introduced to fine dresses and jewelry. Plus, she would befriend Hideko to the point that they would fall for each other until Count Fujiwara arrives claiming he can create perfect forgeries which intrigues Kouzuki. The second act is about Hideko and why she’s known for being reclusive as well as dealing with the death of her beloved aunt (Moon So-ri) who had raised her and had previously been her uncle’s book reader of these racy and explicit erotic novels that she would read to these aristocratic guests who would buy these books at an auction with Kouzuki making lots of money. It’s a role that Hideko would later play as there’s elements in the first act that would return which would lead to this very intriguing third act which is more about Fujiwara’s own ambition and what he wants from this scheme.
Park’s direction is just rapturous in every image he creates as he would take Sarah Waters’ story which was originally set in Victorian Britain and transport it into Japan-occupied Korea during the early years of the 20th Century. Shot largely in South Korea with some locations in Japan, the film does play into this mixture of traditional Japanese interior design with some British Victorian-era architecture in the home of Kouzuki with some of it set in a world that is ever-changing from traditional Japan/Korea to the modern world of that time. Park’s usage of the wide shots and zoom lenses to capture the scope of the rooms and exteriors at the Kouzuki estate has an air of exquisiteness in the way the camera moves as well as play into something that is beautiful but also quite off. Especially the library filled with Kouzuki’s collection of erotic novels and objects that are quite lavish as it play into the desire of these aristocratic men.
The scenes of Hideko reading these salacious and explicit novels with these men, including her uncle and Fujiwara, watching are quite erotic in the way she reads every word as the sensuality is very potent yet also quite restrained compared to the sex scenes involving Hideko and Sook-hee which are intense. Even in how Park would slowly build up the sexual tension as well as creating different perspectives of a scene to showcase what is going on between the two women. The usage of close-ups and medium shots help play into the attraction while Park would also use some tracking shots and other stylized compositions to help play into the drama. It would be very restrained in the third act as it would include bits of humor into the film as it showcases a lot of the ways of the world at that time and how women were perceived in those times. Overall, Park creates an intoxicating yet eerie film about a young woman being used for a scheme to defraud a reclusive heiress.
Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon does incredible work with the film’s gorgeous cinematography with its usage of dark colors and stylish yet low-key lighting for some of the film’s nighttime interior/exterior scenes as well as going for something natural yet dream-like in some of the film’s daytime exterior scenes. Editors Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bum do brilliant work with the editing as its usage of jump-cuts as well as other rhythmic cuts to play into the heightened drama and suspense. Production designer Ryu Segong-hee does amazing work with the look of the look of Kouzuki’s home as well as the many interiors and rooms in the house including the lavish library as it’s a highlight of the film. Costume designer Jo Sang-keyong does excellent work with the design of the suits the men wear as well as the beautiful robes and clothes the women wear.
Hair/makeup designer Jong-hee Song does fantastic work with the look of the hairstyles that Hideko would sport throughout the film as well as the look of Kouzuki. Visual effects supervisor Jeon Hyoung Lee does some nice work with the film’s visual effects which is mainly bits of set dressing for a few scenes including parts of the third act. Sound editor Chul-woo Moon does superb work with the sound in capturing some of the sound effects for some of the dramatic suspense as well as some of the intensely dark moments in the film. The film’s music by Jo Yeong-wook is phenomenal as its usage of heavy string arrangements with elements of piano and orchestration really adds a lot of dramatic weight and intensity in some of the romantic and erotic elements of the film as it is another of the film’s highlights.
The film’s tremendous ensemble cast feature some notable small roles from Kim Hae-sook as the Kouzuki estate’s main butler madam, Lee Yong-nyeo as Sook-hee’s mentor in thievery, Jo Eun-hyung as the young Hideko, and Moon So-ri as Hideko’s late aunt in the flashbacks. Cho Jin-woong is brilliant as Kouzuki as a rich collector of rare erotic novels who is quite perverse and very abusive towards Hideko in the way he would want her to read these novels as well as be very possessive towards his books. Ha Jung-woo is excellent as Fujiwara as a con man who is pretending to be a count to swindle Hideko out of her inheritance where Jung-woo brings a complexity into someone that wants money for his own reasons while doing things to fool someone as if he’s an idiot or ambitious.
Finally, there’s the duo of Kim Hin-jee and Kim Tae-ri in spectacular performances in their respective roles as Hideko and Sook-hee. Tae-ri’s performance as Sook-hee is a joy to watch as someone who is quite innocent into the role she’s in yet knows she is part of a big scheme. There is something about Tae-ri in the way she sees things as there is something that is quite naïve but engrossing as she would develop into a cunning woman that is much smarter than people realize. Hin-jee’s performance as Hideko is also very complex in how she copes with the trauma over her aunt’s death and restrained approach to seduction. There is also something about her that is even more intriguing as the story progresses as there’s so much more to her than this oppressed yet odd heiress. Hin-jee and Tae-ri together have a chemistry that is just insatiable to watch as they have something offbeat in the way they interact with each other as it would grow into something intense as they are the highlights of the film.
The Handmaiden is a magnificent film from Chan-wook Park that features phenomenal performances from Kim Hin-jee, Kim Tae-ri, and Ha Jung-woo. Featuring some incredible technical work as well as a gripping story, gorgeous visuals, and a hypnotic music score. The film is definitely an uneasy yet rapturous film that doesn’t like to play safe while pushing the limits into the world of seduction, deceit, and ambition. In the end, The Handmaiden is an outstanding film from Chan-wook Park.
Chan-wook Park Films: (The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream) – (Trio (1997 film)) – (Judgement (1999 short film)) – JSA-Joint Security Area - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - (If You Were Me-Never Ending Peace and Love) – Oldboy - Three... Extremes-Cut - Lady Vengeance - I'm a Cyborg but That's OK - Thirst - (Night Fishing) – (60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero) – (Day Trip) – Stoker
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