The Handmaiden film review ****


The Handmaiden, 19th May 2017

I don’t read too much fiction these days. I prefer theatre, the visual arts and music. I have also found much of the contemporary fiction that I have read in the last few years a little underwhelming. I have a long list of classics I need to read but figure that will happen in the fullness of time.

There are however some contemporary authors that I do have a lot of time for. Sarah Waters is certainly one of those. Fingersmith, on which this film is based, is my favourite of her novels to date.

I am also pretty picky about the films I see – though I guess if it is a decently reviewed art-housey offering then it will make the cut, even if it doesn’t translate into an immediate viewing. There are also an eclectic handful of directors whose work I will try and see come what may: Mike Leigh, Terence Davies, Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese. No logic here. And this list also includes the director of the Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook, who is back to his Korean native film-making best after the English language Stoker. Oldboy is one of the best films of the last couple of decades in my view and the Vengeance trilogy isn’t half bad either.

So finally I got to see this and blimey what a feast it is. If you don’t know the plot of Fingersmith I won’t spoil it but suffice to say you get proper switchback twists, not once but twice, which makes for a proper thriller. In this respect it goes well beyond the book to explore fresh perspectives of deceit and desire. Yet this plot is punctuated with a knowing humour which is just as well given some of the less than subtle symbolism that is on show. And this all revolves around a lesbian love story with no stinting on the eroticism. There is a fair smattering of mucky stuff as my dear aunt would have said. This is set against a backdrop of a Korea at the time of Japanese colonial rule in the 1930s just to add another layer of confection.

It looks extraordinary with the bulk of the action filmed in wide-screen and set in a house which combines a Western style gothic pile with a Japanese palace. And an interior which is full of all manner of surprises, kinky and otherwise. I am a terrible judge of what is appropriate or not when it comes to issues of the documentation of sexuality in art so I don’t know whether this is lascivious or empowering but it is convincing in its depiction of the main protagonists’ relationship and of the pornographic impulses that drive some of the characters (at one point there a number of fellas who are literally very hot under the collar- hilarious). Apparently Sarah Waters herself has given the film the thumbs up so I guess all is well.

So we have a playful, wry, suspense-filled thriller/whodunnit, dressed up as a very fruity Victorian costumed melodrama, dressed up as a yearning love story, which looks quite stunning. And that’s just for starters. What’s not to like. I have a feeling that for quite a few people pretty much everything. But if you think you might fall into the target audience don’t hesitate (though you might what to ask yourself what qualifies you to be the target).

And if you do accidentally walk into the wrong screen whilst looking for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 I suspect you will realise your mistake well before the subtitles pop up.


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