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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a deliriously entertaining thriller, which will keep you guessing right up to the very end. It is also very erotic, especially if you like the sight of two beautiful naked Korean women in the throes of ecstasy.

Set during the Japanese annexation of Korea, The Handmaiden is a confidence game story, which I love. A dissolute crook (Ha Jung-woo) knows of a young woman (Kim Tae-Ri)who has been cloistered in her uncle's house her whole life. She has a fabulous inheritance waiting for her, which the uncle wants, so he's going to marry her (he is not her blood relation). Ha, who has talent as a forger, arranges to work for the uncle and plans to seduce the girl, marry her, have her committed to an insane asylum, and take her money.

To aid her, he employs a ragamuffin (Kim Min-Hee), an expert pickpocket, to get a job as the lady's handmaiden, and encourage her to marry Ha. But when Min-Hee and Tae-Ri fall in love (their first sex scene includes a shot from the point of view of a vagina) everything changes. The film is in three parts, each revealing a secret, as some of the previous scenes are shown again but from another angle. I found it ingenious, as each character has a card up their sleeve.

The Handmaiden was directed by Park Chan-Wook, director of The Vengeance Trilogy. It's a lush film, with stylish costumes and sets, and beautifully photographed by Chung Chung-hoon.

What gives the film extra spice is the subtext of pornography. Early on we are told that the lady (Kim Tae-Ri), is forced by her uncle to read to guests. We also learn he has an extensive book collection. What we learn later is that she is reading antique pornography, and that his collection is erotica. "I'm a man who likes to hear dirty stories," the uncle (Cho Jin-woong) says. He is a real odd duck, who is carried by a servant on his back and always wears black gloves. He threatens Tae-Ri with a visit to "the basement," and we don't know what she sees, as it's left to our imagination, but given his character we can't even summon up how horrible it must be.

In addition to being sexy, The Handmaiden has some gruesome violence, especially in one of the last scenes, where some fingers are cut off. But compared to Park's other work, it's relatively sedate. I do wish I spoke Korean, though, because the phrase "Fucking hell" is used a few times. I wonder what the literal translation is?

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