Thursday 10 November 2016

The Current Cinema - Set Dressed to Kill: Park Chan-wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN - Ben Cho reports

South Korean films don’t regularly get theatrical releases in Australia but this year the three major Korean titles to reach antipodean shores— each directed by mega-auteurs in their own nation and regulars on the festival circuit’s top-tier—have all dealt in their own manner and to varying degrees of success with the historical tensions between Korea and Japan.
But while Na Hong-jin’s terrific-if-overlong horror The Wailing took place in the present with a shady Japanese drifter as its antagonist, both Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden turn back the clock to a Korea under Japanese colonial rule (Shadows in the twenties, Handmaiden in the thirties).  
What all this says about the state of Japanese-Korean relations is perhaps best left for the political commentariat to consider, but of the three, Park’s film is the least explicit about portraying its Japanese as villainous figures (there’s no one to match the cartoonish Hashimoto of Kim’s superb The Age of Shadows). 
That may be partly due to The Handmaiden’s source material, Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith which is originally set during the Victorian era in England (and is far more concerned with class considerations than ethnic ones), and Park’s own intentions having recently admitted in a Hollywood Reporter interview, “My story is about individual lives set during a particular era, I did not try to isolate the story by removing it from historical events, nor did I allow history to overpower the narrative.”
Engineered with enough shifting perspectives and plot twists to keep audiences engrossed and second-guessing the power dynamics between its principals over its two-and-a-half hour running time, we follow the scheming and betrayals of a Korean scammer (Ha Jung-woo, star of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser and The Yellow Sea), an orphan girl (Kim Tae-ri) posing as a handmaiden and the mysterious Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then) ripe for the takedown. What unfolds, well, to go into details would seriously curb your enjoyment but you can expect a very smartly structured film with plenty of sinister surprises.
Park should need no introduction for cinephiles but his trademark technical slickness is in overdrive here: the fluidity of perfectly predatory camera movement, meticulous framing, immaculate set design and exquisite costumes, there’s a surplus of jaw-dropping moments for aesthetes to savour. If at times the film feels like it could suffocate under the weight of its own exquisite craft, it’s a familiar charge that could be equally levelled at, say, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance—easily the weakest entry of Park’s Vengeance trilogy. 
For Park’s detractors they’ll be unconverted by the film’s stifling precision and calculation, but for the coterie of festival directors and programmers you can see why The Handmaiden was destined for the red carpet: “risqué” lesbian sex and wallops of ultra-violence but with the appearance of historical-political depth underpinning it all.
In this regard, Park is very smart in his strategy, he gets to walk the red carpet of Blue is the Warmest Colour but revel in the trashiness of De Palma’s Passion. And De Palma isn’t a bad name to raise considering The Handmaiden’s style and substance (it wouldn’t have been a shock to see a split di-opter lens being deployed to capture both master and servant as they spy on each other). 
As for the lesbian sex scenes: there’s nothing spectacularly boundary-pushing about any of it by world cinema standards and the only thing worth really mentioning is the repeated medium-close shots of Kim Tae-ri’s handmaiden as if she was almost looking directly at a female crotch. For a film where so much of the camerawork and mise-en-scène choices are exacting, this repeated inclusion seems rather clumsy and sticks out like a sore tentacle. 
On a slightly-related note, news broke in mid-October of Park Chan-wook’s name showing up on an alleged blacklist of artists assembled by the office of the odious South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Those included were not to benefit from financial or logistical government assistance, and speculation is rife about the connections between those listed (including The Age of Shadows star Song Kang-ho) and their previous vocal protest against government handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. The whole ugly saga is a deeply unsettling reminder about the machinations of government and the Korean film industry in light of the recent Busan Film Festival dramas and rumours of international film festivals getting pressure from government agencies surrounding which films to invite. Maybe Park should turn his attentions to a high-stakes thriller with the ultimate villain in the form of Park Geun-hye. She could be some kind of Lady Vengeance but she ain’t going to get much sympathy.

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