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Seoul On Ice

Ed Rampell: Chan-wook’s film combining crime with eroticism and decadence is largely set in 1930s’ colonial Korea during the Japanese occupation.
The Handmaiden

Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee


To Western eyes, South Korean director/co-writer Park Chan-wook’s stylish The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) may seem like a cross between a Patricia Highsmith novel and Spaniard Luis Buñuel’s surreal take on sexual perversion. Imagine 2015’s Carol and 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley mixed with 1961’s Viridiana and 1967’s Belle de Jour, then set this movie mélange in Asia, and you’ll concoct something similar to the sensibility of The Handmaiden, embellished by the sumptuous, sensuous cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung.

Chan-wook’s film combining crime with eroticism and decadence is largely set in 1930s’ colonial Korea during the Japanese occupation (The Handmaiden is subtitled in English). Sook-Hee (South Korean actress Kim Tae-ri) plays the eponymous character, a pickpocket who connives her way into becoming the servant of high born Lady Hideko (South Korean actress Min-hee Kim), with the help of a co-conspirator and conman, who purports himself to be Japanese “Count” Fujiwara (Jung- Woo Ha). Living a secluded existence in palatial splendor under the tutelage of her Uncle Kouzuki (Busan-born Jin-woong Jo), Lady Hideko seems to be quite naïve.

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And also loaded - the Japanese noblewoman is believed to be an heiress in line to inherit a fortune. Sook-Hee and Fujiwara appear to plot to defraud Hideko of her impending inheritance. Along the way, during this almost two and a half hour movie, there are more twists and turns than on the road to Hana, Maui. Sexuality emerges in a variety of ways, including as lesbianism and readings of erotic literature for a sort of circle jerk of Kouzuki’s older, well-to-do male friends. Some of the books in Kouzuki’s rarefied library contain works featuring Shunga - Japanese erotic prints.

The Handmaiden also makes points about (attempted) male domination, class and power, which may reflect the power relations between “subjects” (Koreans) and “masters” (Japanese colonial overlords), as well as between males and females. This is one of those films where viewers have to keep score and pay close attention to see who is scamming - and screwing - who, in their lust for power (in the form of dominance), sex and perhaps, above all, for money. It could be said that Chan-wook’s characters have a yen for greed. His well-directed, deliberately paced period peace - as con after con is revealed and unraveled - is based on British novelist Sarah Waters’ 2002 Fingersmith, a historical crime novel set in England during the Victorian Era.

the handmaiden

Born 1963 in Seoul, Chan-wook’s films have won prizes at Cannes for 2003’s Oldboy and 2009’s Thirst. Among his many other films is 2006’s amusingly named I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK and Chan-wook’s first foray into English language moviemaking was the 2013 thriller Stoker, which was shot on location largely in Tennessee and stars Nicole Kidman. The Handmaiden premiered at 2016’s Cannes Film Festival and opens Oct. 21 at The Landmark Theatre in West Los Angeles, the ArcLight Hollywood and CGV Cinemas in Koreatown, and will expand from there. This artsy film, which I believe is not rated, is an acquired taste, for more adventurous filmgoers who enjoy offbeat eroticism, plot twists, foreign films and, perhaps, a penchant for depravity. And, but of course, for fans of Korean cinema.

Ed Rampell