Park Chan-wook Returns with an Enticing Historical Drama
DIRECTED BY PARK CHAN-WOOK/KOREAN & JAPANESE/2016
In the mid-aught, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook made a huge splash in the international scene not only for himself but his country. His revenge trilogy, which were made up of three wonderfully exciting and equally odd and perverted films: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, were the leading force in the South Korean movement that was followed by great directors like Bong Joon-Ho and Kim Jee-woon.
Oldboy, the middle entry in the trilogy, became the ultimate cult classic of its time. The word-of-mouth for it started as a right-of-passage for film lovers and grew so much that it was eventually remade, sub-parly, by Spike Lee. As for Chan-wook, it became conventional wisdom that his peak has past with Oldboy. Not that his later entries, including the vampire film Thirst and his American debut Stoker were bad. It’s just the lightening in the bottle he hit with Oldboy is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
Which helps explain why his newest film, The Handmaiden, hit me so hard. I just forgot his abilities as a director who once dropkicked us all with Oldboy. And though The Handmaiden may not be quite as good as Oldboy, it’s probably his best since.
And even after saying it’s not as good as Oldboy, I feel the need to qualify that. It’s not quite as subversive (though it’s still pretty subversive) and insane (though it’s still pretty insane) or as risky as Oldboy (though, as you can guess, it’s still pretty risky).
But in some ways it’s more mature of a film, and that may resonate more with some viewers.
The story has to do with Soonhee (Kim Tae-ri) and young member of a criminal gang who is sent by the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to serve at the mansion of a Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who is strictly under the thumb of her sadistic Korean uncle (Cho Jin-woong). From there, betrayal, sex, love, weird sadomasochism and breath-taking scenery make this all 2 hours of 30 minutes feel like a wonderful adventure.
The Handmaiden reminded me of so many other films and filmmakers, while remaining its own voice.
Chan-wook is compared often to Hitchcock, and if you follow that patch, you would have to say The Handmaiden is most akin to Rebecca. However, the comparison feels not quite right and a tad lazy. Firstly, I’d say the better comparison is Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. And secondly, it’s not that Chan-wook and The Handmaiden aren’t from a direct line extending for Hitchcock, but rather it needs to be acknowledged that there is a bridge between them. And that bridge is De Palma. De Palma’s sexual politics that very much thread the line between sexism and empowerment felt like a logical conclusion from Hitchcock than Chan-Wook has ran with.
The dark period nature of the film reminded me of many others in the past, but most notably the recent 2011 version of Jane Eyre. The repeated viewing of the events that happen with different perspectives reminded me of Rashomon. The lesbian love scenes that were titillating but went on an uncomfortably long time reminded me of Blue is the Warmest Color. And the completely unreliable narrators reminded me of The Usual Suspects.
But will all of these possible influences, do not let it take away from the fact that The Handmaiden is truly one of the most wildly original, entertaining and unusual films you will see all year.