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posted 8 Jan 2018, 04:29 by Scene Alba Magazine

In this twisty erotic thriller, the camera lingers on gorgeously cool surfaces while all sorts of passions and perversities writhe and roil underneath.

Like everything by Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden (in Korean and Japanese, with subtitles) is meticulously controlled in form and bonkers-crazy in content. That’s a heady combo.

Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a petty criminal raised in a house of thieves, is brought in by the so-called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to help him seduce and defraud the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a naive Japanese heiress kept more or less captive by her sinister Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong).

The sneaky setup is threatened when Sook-hee, serving as Hideko’s handmaiden, falls in love with her mistress. This is only the first reversal in a plot packed with concealments and revelations, sudden betrayals and unexpected alliances, double- and triple-crossings.

Based on Fingersmith, a 2002 novel by Welsh writer Sarah Waters that was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize, the story has been transplanted from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, but the sexual taboos and social constrictions that drive the book’s plot have been kept elegantly in place.

The story is divided into three parts, each told from a slightly different viewpoint and each teasing out hidden aspects of the others. This tricky structure demands a great deal from the cast, as each performance is built on multiple emotional deceptions. The two women, in particular, deftly combine layers of elaborate artifice with a core of genuine lust and longing.

The film’s first part focuses on the seemingly crafty Sook-hee. The second shifts to Hideko, who has been raised by her uncle in an odd manor in the Korean countryside. Architecturally, the house combines a British wing and a Japanese wing, suggesting the divided yearnings of the self-loathing and sadistic Kouzuki. He has "trained" Hideko to assist in his vast, secretive library project, the disturbing nature of this exercise only becoming clear midway through the film.

Famous for his Vengeance Trilogy — which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance — Park excels at a certain kind of art-house trashiness. Here, florid gothic melodrama is cut with ruthlessly self-aware style and grotesque, idiosyncratic humour.

Park has simplified Waters’ labyrinthine storyline — probably a necessity, since even with these cuts the plotting remains deliriously complicated. And he actually builds on Waters’ genius for combining historical fictions with frank and subversive gay love stories, being one of the few filmmakers who can do something truly interesting and unexpected with graphic sex scenes.

Park is also known for lunatic levels of visceral violence. The Handmaiden doesn’t even come close to the bloody body counts of his other work, but it thrums with threat, and there are brief bursts of brutality, including a wildly unpleasant, weirdly funny torture scene.

Clearly, this is not a movie for everyone. But for many Park fans, The Handmaiden will mark a return to form after Stoker, the director’s uneven English-language debut.

The film doesn’t just consolidate Park’s considerable skills; it extends them. To Waters’ feminist concerns, Park adds a pointed critique of colonialism, giving some serious heft to his ravishing stylings and overheated cinematic pleasures.