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Sapphic Swoon: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) – Blu-ray review

August 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Here’s a Brit-lit adaptation you won’t mistake for the BBC1 Sunday night slot. Park turns up the heat on everything: sex, violence, subtext and style.

1 Handmaiden

The Handmaiden
(Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Park Chan-wook’s career has underdone one of the most interesting transition over the past decade, from the purveyor of brutal revenge thrillers to the consummate stylist of Gothic romances.  This isn’t as strange a shift as it might first appear: the likes of Oldboy show a keen knowledge of Jacobean tragedy, while his English-language debut, Stoker, was still steeped in blood.

For The Handmaiden, Park has adapted a bona-fide gem of English Literature, but rather than look to Austen or Dickens, he’s chosen Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ contemporary, subversive riff on Victoriana, with its taboo blend of lesbian sex and crime.  It’s a reasonably faithful adaptation, although one in which he’s made some cunning changes so as to emphasise the fusion of form and content he started in Stoker and perfects here.

This is a lush, ornate vision of affluence, with a rapt grandeur to the production design and costumes.  Yet Park is more concerned with what’s going on behind the trinkets and garments, and not only when it comes to the copious sex scenes.  Like the Japanese-style sliding doors, whose thin walls let people see shadows and hear echoes, it’s a film of deceptive surfaces, and his camerawork glides to gain the best vantage point.  In the knotted flashbacks of the second act, he literally shifts position to give a fresh perspective on supposedly familiar events.

By setting the tale during Japan’s occupation of Korea, Park adds to Waters’ critique of power.  He retains the device of a rich pervert cataloguing vintage pornography, but it isn’t just about patriarchy in this context but a wider vision of mastery and servitude, in which Korean genuflection to Japan is a moral failing.  Only when the servant becomes her boss’ equal can this be righted – and that’s where the ladies’ love affair comes in.

So the film becomes a neat balance between its own surface pleasures – the storytelling has a crisp, Hitchcockian precision – and its political subtext.  Inevitably, this being Park, there’s only so long he can hold the pose of an elegant period drama.  By the end, the fanbase he’s brought with him since Oldboy can delight in a Grand Guignol torture sequence (complete with a cameo by an octopus!) while fans of exploitation movies can thrill to just about the loveliest, most romantic ‘love beads’ sequences in cinema.

The Handmaiden is released on Blu-ray on Monday 7th August.  A special 2-disc set also includes Park’s extended cut.

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