Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Handmaiden (4 Stars)

"No woman in this world wants to be taken by force".

The film takes place in the 1930's during the Japanese occupation of Korea. At its core it's a tale of two very different women who grow together under the harshest of circumstances. Sook-hee is a young Korean woman who has been brought up as a pick pocket in a society of thieves. Hideko is a rich Japanese woman living under the control of her perverted uncle Kouzuki.

Kouzuki is actually a Korean, but ever since he married a rich Japanese woman he's taken a Japanese name and pretends to be Japanese. He owns a large collection of erotic literature in various languages. He used to hold book readings, in which his wife read books aloud to rich visitors. She committed suicide, so he now makes Hideko read the books in her place. The majority of the books involve violence against women, and as a result Hideko has developed a dislike for men. Hideko has received a large inheritance, and the uncle plans to marry her to get his hands on it.

A con man posing as a Japanese count attends the book readings. He wants the inheritance for himself. He wants to seduce Hideko and persuade her to run away and marry him, but he realises that she doesn't like men. He arranges for Sook-hee to be hired as Hideko's handmaiden, with the task of influencing Hideko to persuade her to fall for him. Of course, the count has no affection for Hideko. After marrying her he intends to have her committed to a mental asylum, so he can keep all the money for himself.

"The Handmaiden" meanders on for two and a half hours, but it's never boring. The plot twists and turns, keeping the viewer riveted to the screen. In the past I've never liked the films of Park Chan-wook, but this is a magnificent film. The film's strength probably comes from the fact that unlike his previous films he didn't write it himself. It's an adaptation of a novel by the Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Her novel is set in Victorian London, but the background is unimportant and allows the film to be easily translated into a Korean setting. The result is an astounding pschological thriller.

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