Thursday 3 August 2017

On DVD: "The Handmaiden"

Although acclaimed in many quarters as a triumph, The Handmaiden is as much a retreat for Park Chan-wook, marking the director's return to his native Korea after the commercial underperformance of his US-set, English-language debut Stoker. However unhappy his time in the West may have been, Park clearly picked up something of note during his visit - a copy of Sarah Waters' much-admired novel Fingersmith - but his adaptation emerges as only loosely inspired by its source, a matter of the filmmaker wondering what might be gained from transferring the book's bizarre love triangle from Victorian Britain to the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. With its final act snaking out in an entirely new direction, The Handmaiden offers a lavish illustration of an auteur overwriting an author, a process that generates as many losses as gains.

This is very much the baroque handiwork of the Park who first unfolded the Vengeance trilogy - 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2003's OldBoy and 2005's Lady Vengeance - before gobsmacked audiences. Within moments of the opening credits, we've been shown a butterfly-shaped hairpin that opens a locked drawer containing myriad antiquities, and taken inside a country house that meshes English and Japanese architecture and contains a bedroom that holds not one, not two, but a full five drawers of ladies' silk gloves. In essence, what Park has done is to further dress up Waters' penny-dreadful plot: that of a low-born girl (in this case Kim Tae-ri's Sookhee, a.k.a. Tamako), placed inside a well-to-do household as part of a planned robbery scam, who finds her head (and other parts) turned by the mistress of the house (Kim Min-hee's Lady Sadako).

In Park's hands, this becomes both an intricate and highly eroticised movement. It begins when Tamako files a snaggletooth in Sadako's mouth with a thimble; it proceeds through sleepover snuggling - Tamako teaching the apparently virginal Sadako how to kiss - to full-on scissoring with very evocative Foley work. In retrospect, it seems appropriate that the phrase Ha Jung-woo's scheming "Count" Fujiwara issues to Tamako to trigger their plan is "fully ripe", and that he should eventually deliver this password while biting into a peach that explodes on impact: The Handmaiden is fully, properly, knowingly ripe from first florid frame to its last. And yet, however absurd it might get, it grips us. There's a cherishable contrast between the considered elegance of Park's design and his cursing, spitting, rutting players, who've very clearly been instructed to act like horny, venal, recognisably 21st century types. 

Park has no interest in The Handmaiden becoming a genteel museum piece; instead, he applies his usual red-blooded, full-throttle approach to what is, at its dark and twisted heart, a best-laid-plans thriller, one that yields twists and other perversities at almost every turn. The entire second act is one such deviation, set primarily in a mechanised library of Oriental erotica that serves as an underground sex club for the country's occupiers (choice Parkian detail: the stone snake that marks "the bounds of [presumably carnal] knowledge"; screen doors that fold like labia); it goes on to offer a reverse angle on everything we've witnessed up to that point. All of which is to acknowledge the film's superlative construction. Seong-hie Ryu's exceptional, multifaceted production design keeps being reconfigured in much the same way as the central relationships come to be reconfigured, and the plot reshaped.

The off-colour activity those sets contain doubtless helped make The Handmaiden a rare succès de scandale, Park's biggest hit in the UK to date - a fine box-office return, all told. Yet while the squid that featured so memorably in OldBoy returns here - in a new, altogether kinkier context - the weird pain and grief sublimated in that film is entirely absent from the new one. We're simply set to watching characters playing games and screwing one another over, another Tinder-era powerplay unfolding on a theatre of cruelty overseen by an attentive, obsessive yet undeniably gifted puppetmaster who doesn't pause long enough for us to register any emotional hurt, and knows all too well the seductive power of girl-on-girl action. In the concluding moments, the outsized lovebeads strung up in Act One are finally deployed - like the gun in a Hitchcock movie - and the screen is flooded with an ocean of wetness: it's easy to be amused, tickled, perhaps even titillated by the cut, a little harder to fall in love with the sight and sound of a director so obviously amusing himself.

The Handmaiden is available on DVD and Blu-Ray this Monday through Curzon Artificial Eye. 

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