Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Park Chan-wook's THE HANDMAIDEN: full of secrets and lies -- and it's drop-dead gorgeous

If you're a fan of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (J.S.A., his Vengeance trilogy, and Thirst), you'll make a bee line for his newest film, THE HANDMAIDEN, which is very probably his best. It is certainly his most beautiful film, often breathtaking in its color and composition, but it is also his most placid -- even thought it's filled with mystery, betrayals, and finally just a tad's worth of his signature violence and blood. It is also one of the sexiest, most voluptuous movies I've ever seen -- brought to life, or at least to movie life, with that peculiar (to us westerners) Asian blend of inscrutability, perversity and out-and-out passion that offers up a very hot time.

Mr. Park, shown at left, is gifted in so many areas -- storytelling, visual sense and provocation -- that prove pertinent to the tale he tells here. It is lifted pretty much intact (as I remember, at least) from the British lesbian mystery series Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England and first shown on television in 2005. Park has made the move to Korea and Japan seem utterly appropriate in terms of plot, behavior and all else. And his movie is maybe ten times as beautiful as was the original -- which was perfectly fine in its own manner.

Fingersmith, in three episodes, ran three hours, and The Handmaiden, coming in at nearly two-and-one half, is almost comparable in length. The plots (as I recall, at least), while similar in basic outline, vary greatly in their details, especially as concerns a "reading group" composed of wealthy Japanese men for whom one of our heroines performs. (These scenes are among the movie's most bizarre, perverse and, in their way, beautiful.)

The tale told involves a pretty young girl who is a pickpocket in a family of criminals, another of whom, posing as a wealthy Count, has wormed his way into the trust of a man who controls the inheritance of a niece whom the Count plans to woo, marry, dispose of, and inherit her wealth. To more easily accomplish this. he uses the young girl to serve as the lady's hand-maiden and help convince her that this Count is the man of her dreams.

The filmmaker tell his tale from three vantage points, that of the handmaiden, then from the POV of the lady for whom she works, and finally from the usual, all-knowing viewpoint we're more used to in our movies. Though much of the same material is covered, seeing it so differently proves enriching, surprising and very entertaining. Our sympathies moves back and forth between the two women, finally coming to rest almost equally on both. (The men here are entirely pigs. Of their time, of course, but pigs all the same.)

The plot may have its coincidences and contrivances but so enthralling are the characters and the beautiful visuals that I don't think you'll mind one bit. (I kept wanting to takes notes on the film but could not pry my eyes away from the screen long enough to do so.) A terrific cast has been assembled here, and it performs to the hilt. The little details Park allows us to witness -- taking care of milady's too-sharp tooth, for instance -- are just about perfectly chosen for both beauty and intimacy.

This movie is so full of quiet surprise and finally a kind of passionate dedication to freedom for its quartet of characters (in very different ways, however) that I don't want to spoil one bit more of the rapturously convoluted plot by blabbing further. The Handmaiden -- like Snowpiercer and a number of other South Korean films -- keeps this little country still at the forefront of some of the best and most unusual mainstream arthouse cinema.

Being distributed across the USA by Magnolia Pictures, running 145 minutes and remaining unrated, the movie -- after opening in New York and L.A. last week to mostly excellent reviews -- hits cities around the country this Friday, October 28. Here in South Florida, it plays the Coral Gables Art Cinema in the Miami area, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. To see all currently scheduled playdates and theaters, click here

No comments: