Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 01, 2016 11:07 am 
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KIM MIN-HEE AND KIM TAE-RI IN HANDMAIDEN

Park Chan-wook's elaborate soft-core lesbian romance

Park Chan-wook's new film, Handmaiden (presented in France as Mademoiselle), is a startling change of pace for the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, though as over-the-top as ever. A free adaptation of the Welsh writer Sarah Water's period crime novel Fingersmith, it's a baroque, erotic, elaborate period piece set in Thirties Korea under Japanese occupation, that's also a treasure trove of narrative twists and turns.

The original story concerns a Victorian girl pickpocket brought up among thieves in Southwark under the bridge, who is sent by a scam artist known as "Gentleman" to deceive an heiress who stands to inherit a fortune from the old uncle in whose dark mansion she lives. Gentleman has already gained the heiress' confidence but wants the girl to help him move in on her, marry her, and dump her in an insane asylum, pocketing the fortune for himself, giving the girl a percentage.

The reviewer in the Gardian, while reveling in Waters' book's divertingly lurid melodrama worthy of Wilkie Collins, acknowledges it could "perhaps have been edited a little." The same is true of Handmaiden, which seems to contain many of the accoutrements of Fingersmith - the lesbian romance that develops between girl and mistress, the gloves and rustling fabric, the plotting and betrayals - with a lot more overt sex and some sadistic violence tossed in at the end, as well as a somewhat excessive series of revisits to the early action to show us what really happened, much of which is unnecessary and condescending and helps explain the film's considerable length (2 1/2 hours).

The action is claustrophobic and repetitive to a point that is wearisome, but the film beautiful and erotic - if not as much as it could be of either. The mise-en-scène is ornate (the heavy, posh period interiors, the women's dresses), but the images don't have quite the gloss and high color one expected. The lesbian love scenes are juicy but abrupt, rather than slow-burns.

Nonetheless some things are undeniable fun. The two attractive young actresses do throw themselves into things. The pale and differently lovely servant-crook Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and her new mistress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) are teasing eye-candy, and it's intriguing to see them gradually come together and exchange characteristics - and body fluids.

Park has said his pleasure in transferring the action to Thirties Korea was to comment on the Japanese occupation, and even linguistically handicapped westerners can appreciate the constant switches back and forth between Korean and Japanese because they are indicated by white subtitles for the former and yellow ones for the latter. Korean is the occupiers' language and also the language of the poseur. The scam artist who brings in the orphan pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) calls himself Count Fujiwara, but is really Korean (Ha Jung-woo). The heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hi) is living with her Korean uncle-by-marriage, Kozuki (Cho Jin-woong), a creep who collects erotic books and fetishizes Japanese culture. Lady Hideko turns out to know Korean too, and of course "Count Fujiwara" is constantly switching back and forth. We can see political resentments and class tensions blending with personal insecurity and neuroticism: Lady Hideko is partly crazy, or so it seems. Meanwhile, following the book, the film is in three parts, with identify and point of view shifts with each part to undercut what we thought was happening.

Despite shrewd observations on class and gender, it's hard not to see Park as ramping up shock value as he always has, made to seem smarmy and less crass simple fun due the the genteel element of costume romance. But it's been argued by some critics, with some reason, that any claims that this is retro and sexist stuff are offset by the fact that the triumphant lovers are women, and the various men are all useless and annoying. In the end it's a tossup whether this is a cinematic masterpiece of a load of bull crap. As always Park is a gifted filmmaker, though he may be running out of native ideas a bit, and finally Handmaiden will fit in at the lower end of his distinctive cult films and is certainly not one of his flops.

Handmaiden/Mademoiselle/아가씨, debuted at Cannes in Competition May 2016; two dozen other international festivals. Limited US release 21 Oct., official release in France 1 Nov. 2016. Screened for this review at MK2 Odéon, Paris 1 Nov. Metacritic rating 84%; AlloCiné press rating 4.0 from 20 reviews.

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