Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Handmaiden (EIFF 5) - updated

[Update: I have now finished Fingersmith, the novel upon which The Handmaiden was based, and can confirm that the final 30 minutes of the film have nothing whatsoever to do with the novel. Since I hated those final 30 minutes, I can only say that I am extremely disappointed and wonder whether The Handmaiden even deserves ***. Personally, I think Park Chan-wook has some serious explaining to do.]

Imagine my surprise when I start watching a film I know nothing about and discover that I know everything that’s going to happen. How do I know?  Because I’m just finishing the novel on which the film is based. The film is called The Handmaiden. It was made in South Korea by the acclaimed Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, and takes place in Korea in the early 20th century. The novel, which is very loosely adapted for the film, is called Fingersmith, written by Sarah Waters. It takes place in and near London in the 19th century and involves no Koreans. Thus my surprise. 

The differences between the novel and the film don’t end with the change of setting and are the primary reason I was not particularly impressed with The Handmaiden (though I haven’t finished the novel yet so don’t know how it ends). 

The Handmaiden stars Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, a young Korean woman growing up in relative poverty who works as a pickpocket in a Fagin-like household of petty crime. Sook-hee gets involved in a scheme to rob a wealthy young Japanese heiress (Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee) of her fortune. The scheme is hatched by “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo), a member of Sook-hee’s gang, who plans to seduce Lady Hideko, steal her away from her uncle’s home, marry her and then commit her to an asylum while he spends her fortune. Sook-hee will share in the fortune if she plays the role of Lady Hideko’s handmaiden and helps in the seduction scheme. But as Sook-hee gets to know Lady Hideko, her enthusiasm begins to wane.

Meanwhile, Lady Hideko, who is at the heart of Part Two of The Handmaiden, grows up as an orphan in her uncle’s mansion, where she spends hours a day reading pornographic books to her nasty uncle (and occasionally to her uncle’s group of friends). The arrival of Sook-hee will change her life forever. I’m not willing to reveal anymore of the twisty and twisted plot.

The Handmaiden features stunning cinematography from the first shot to the last, and I loved the film’s score. The acting was solid throughout and some scenes, which were not really described in the novel, were brilliantly-conceived and breathtaking to watch. 

Unfortunately, other scenes made me cringe in the worst possible way, including a long torture scene which was completely unnecessary. The Handmaiden is described as an erotic psychological thriller. I would add that there are significant attempts to add dark humour into the mix. Fingersmith, on the other hand, was not nearly so focused on the erotic and had no real dark humour to speak of. I appreciated neither addition. Indeed, I found the emphasis on sex quite disturbing, because while the novel and film both clearly try to challenge the objectification of women and the way Hideko has been abused by her uncle, the film’s sex scenes, which involved beautiful young women, are shot in way that, to me, nullifies much of that message.

The Handmaiden could have been a profound beautiful suspense drama, but I was disappointed and can give it no more than ***. My mug is up, but don’t take that as a recommendation to go see the film, which deserves a serious R rating (even in Canada). 

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