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Brief review: Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden

Kim Min-hee - riveting as she reads from a rare and choice Japanese publication
Kim Min-hee – riveting as she reads from a rare and choice Japanese publication…

I’ll leave others to do the detailed review of Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden (아가씨), which screened at the London Film Festival this week and which will return later in the month at the London East Asia Film Festival.

Ha Jung-woo and Jo Jin-woong
… to an audience including her suitor (Ha Jung-woo), her uncle (Jo Jin-woong) and other appreciators of the genre

Suffice it to say that it’s gorgeous-looking, both in terms of costume and interiors, great story-telling and totally immersive cinema. Ryu Seong-hie definitely deserved her Vulcain award at Cannes for set design. And with Park’s regular team of Chung Chung-hoon on cinematography and Cho Young-wuk looking after the music we are in extremely safe hands.

Kideko the heiress and her maid
Kim Min-hee as Hideko the heiress and Kim Tae-ri as her maid

How close it is to Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith I don’t know. It stands on its own as a compelling story and marks a return to form for Park Chan-wook after the visually beautiful but otherwise unsatisfying Stoker. I was so caught up in the story that I completely missed the appearance of Moon Sori as the aunt. But Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri shine as the central trio tangled in intrigue and counter-intrigue.

Kim Tae-ri
The handmaiden looks on enviously. Remind you of a shot from Kim Ki-young’s Housemaid?

This being Park Chan-wook you’re sure of some darkness, and there are one or two moments when you will wince and look away. And as you sit in a darkened theatre looking at some of the X-rated beauty on screen, you feel uncomfortably like the outwardly respectable audience getting turned on as they listen to Hideko (Kim Min-hee) reading from her uncle’s rare Japanese pornographic texts. But you probably won’t mind Park making fun of you in this way, will revel in the twists and turns of the plot and come out well satisfied.

Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) The Handmaiden (아가씨, 2016) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-1


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