Something that I have been bemoaning for a long, long time in cinema is the practise of remakes and sequels all in the name of securing a sure fire financial success. Disney above all others has been most guilty of this crime in recent history, and to be honest, the remake fatigue is starting to wear me down. However, I must admit that there are rare occasions when, rather than rolling my eyes and heaving a sigh for the loss of originality, my interest is piqued by the news of a remake that comes out of absolutely nowhere. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden certainly falls in to this category.
Based on the bestselling novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is a twisting, turning, tumultuous tale about an attempted inheritance scam and the bond that unexpectedly forms between the two young women at the centre of the plot. Changed from the original book setting of Victorian London, the film takes place in Korea under the era of Japanese rule, and features actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim-Tae-ri in the lead roles. Notice how my brief synopsis is intentionally vague, the reason for this being that to delve any deeper in to the film’s narrative would be to rob unsuspecting viewers of some of the most memorable and audacious plot twists of the year, possibly even the decade. Turning from one thing in to another, The Handmaiden takes the form of two or three different kinds of movies, with the rug being ripped from underneath you every time that you think you have finally got it pegged. Equal parts thriller, drama, erotica and even possessing a refreshing and cynical dark sense of humour throughout, the picture is a whirlwind of aesthetic pleasure that also boasts an engrossing plot, keeping the audience fully captivated for a near three hour running time.
Anybody who is, as I was, already familiar with the original source material need not worry about the impact of the film being dampened for them. A remake in all the very best ways a remake should be, The Handmaiden bears important plot milestone resemblances to Fingersmith, but in the changing of its setting and in the absolutely unashamed heightening of every on screen aspect, it becomes something even more shocking, even more engrossing, even more enjoyable. The picture thrusts you in to a Korean/Japanese/British fusion of culture and architecture that makes for a peculiar and unfamiliar background. There is an overwhelming atmosphere of isolation that permeates through every inch of the narrative, whether that be physical isolation or psychological isolation, and amidst this rather hostile environment, the budding relationship between Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) feels like a red hot spark on a cold dark night. There is no doubt that the film indulges in sexual titillation on several occasions, and whilst some critics have taken a dislike to what they perceive to be male gaze, exploitative love scenes, I tend to hold the opinion that in a film where every aspect of the narrative is turned up to eleven, there has to be room to be equally outlandish in the physicality of romance and lust.
Though The Handmaiden certainly feels like the kind of picture that could have coasted by on its brilliantly chaotic plot alone, I’m happy to report that all of the central performances were equally brilliant. As young handmaiden Sook-hee, Kim Tae-ri gives an enigmatic performance, full of the quiet bravado that it takes to be the participant of a grand scheme, yet also showing flashes of real heart and confusion as her attraction to Lady Izumi Hideko grows. As for Hideko herself, Kim Min-hee performs similarly impressive work, though once again I am scared to reveal too much for fear of ruining the film. What is most important is the genuine connection and chemistry that you feel between the two actresses, it both gives the audience something to invest in and also plays a part in making the loves scenes feel like something more than sexual exploitation. Notable supporting performances are given by Ha Jung-woo as the Svengali-eque man behind the original scam plans, Count Fujiwara, and Cho Jin-woong as Hideko’s increasingly villainous uncle Kouzuki. In a film where there are absolutely no positive portrayals of men, these two actors revel in their appalling roles, throwing themselves fully in to characters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The film employs a ‘Sixth Sense‘ kind of vibe in which it revisits key scenes from different perspectives to display different outcomes, and each performer is great at adapting to these scenes and showing different sides of themselves to provide the audience with a richer, more layered narrative.
Overall, The Handmaiden is film that simply cannot be missed. For reasons that I am still yet to fully get a handle on, I came out of the film feeling that same way that I felt after seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, the delirious sense of having watched something unlike anything I had ever seen before. Returning full circle to the topic of remakes, I have to say that the sheer unsettling and unusual nature of this culture-fusion adaptation makes it a more memorable and rewarding watch than the Victorian based original. Without a doubt one of my favourites of the year so far.