REVIEW – 아가씨 (The Handmaiden)

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If you’re not aware of the career of Korean director Park Chan-wook, you are arguable missing out on one of the great directorial careers. While his one Hollywood film Stoker didn’t really make a smash with audiences, Park has created some of the all-time great films in his native Korean – most notably the disturbing revenge thriller Oldboy.

Now Park has returned to Korea for a brand new film. And I didn’t know what to expect coming into this movie, but it certainly wasn’t what I got, which was an erotic thriller – a throwback to the sorts of movies that would come out in the early 1990’s, and for some reason always starred Michael Douglas. But it was mixed with a plot of such twists and turns that it elevates itself over the other modern entries into the oft-maligned genre.

(Reviewer’s note: Due to the nature of this film, I cannot begin to review it without delving into some minor spoilers – unless the review is so vague that nothing is said. I’ll try to keep most of the storyline secret, but if you are particularly touchy about spoilers, I’d suggest clicking the X at the top of your screen and finding something else to amuse yourself with)

The basic plot can be described as what would happen if Jane Austen was in any way interesting enough to have written a story that involved con-men. And plot. (For more on my distaste for the works of Jane Austen, see Love & Friendship.) In more detail, in an impoverished Korea under Japanese occupation, a con-man named Count Fujiwara sets up an elaborate plan to claim the fortune of a rich Japanese heiress by marrying her and immediately committing her to a mental institution (one of the nice ones managed by the “rational Germans”). In order to ensure that his plan was a success, the Count hired a petty thief, Sook-hee, to become the heiresses confidant and handmaiden, quietly planting the seeds that would allow the Count to sweep the Lady off her feet. But everyone involved in the plan has their own secrets to hide, and things aren’t improved when Sook-hee falls for the heiress herself.

As with any film from Park Chan-wook, the filmmaking is very hard to be critical of. The man is a master of his craft, and a big part of that is the way he gains the full potential out of his cast. The 3 lead roles are very well performed, with Park getting great performances out of respected Korean actors Kim Min-hee (Lady Hideko) and Ha Jung-woo (Count Fujiwara), as well as introducing a newcomer in Kim Tae-ri, who brings a lot of energy and spirit to the role of Sook-hee. All 3 actors bring something unique to the table, and they all work quite well with each other. A particular strength of all of them was the delivery of Park’s wry and often very dark sense of humour, which all of them understood completely.

The writing as a whole was very well done as well. Park, who wrote and directed the film, didn’t just infuse the plot with the aforementioned humour, but also added a number of twists and turns that kept the audience guessing and was anything but predictable. The story was told in a non-linear fashion, which I am a complete sucker for, and this allowed the mystery to unravel in a very engrossing way, and various new information came to light. Not all of the credit can go to Park and his writing partner Chung Seo-kyung though, as much of the film was adapted from the British Gothic crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walters (full disclosure – I have not read Fingersmith, but the Wikipedia synopsis shows a similar storyline with a few key differences).

Combined with excellent cinematography, and a strong sense of direction, this movie is very strong and is a timely reminder that America doesn’t have a monopoly on filmmaking, and indeed great films can come from any country.

screenausWell, almost any country….

Now, here’s where I have to talk about the negatives. And, I’m sorry folks, but the negatives for me involve the sex scenes. I know it’s an “erotic thriller” and that people generally get a kick out of watching two people on screen doing the nasty, for some reason. But, all up, I probably saw about half an hour of very explicit sex scenes in this film (explicit enough to warrant an R18+ rating!), and I didn’t get the sense that these sex scenes were needed to advance the plot or to tell the story in any way. If anything, it drew me out of the movie, and I became very much aware that I was sitting in a theater, next to an old friend of mine who by coincidence was at the same screening, watching some highly sexual content. I’d much rather have been engrossed by the truly interesting mystery for much of the run time. Now explicit sex scenes are fine if they’re used properly. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was designed entirely around explicit sex scenes, and the erotic scenes in Basic Instinct do a lot to develop Sharon Stone’s character. But this just felt, unnecessary. Like a time filler. But with boobs. From a carnal point of view, I guess it works, but it did, in my mind, distract from a very good film that didn’t need it.

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Cleared this benchmark though. Hooray for that!

4/5 – a wonderfully told story that sadly leaned too heavily on some gratuitous scenes that would make the Game of Thrones producers blush.

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