Nothing says “Christmas Eve” like some rather explicit Korean lesbian eroticism, apparently, and so The Boy and I trundled down to Santa Monica to see The Handmaiden, the latest from Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy and producer of Snowpiercer. One of Mr. Park’s other films is I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK, and I think you can probably infer from this what sort of films he makes. That is: Balls out, unapologetic, I-do-what-I-want films.
And that’s okay.
The Boy and I had been wanting to see this for a while but it was not playing at any convenient times or places, and the relative lack of traffic on Christmas Eve made it possible for us to catch an evening show, down in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, where I heard words that have possibly never otherwise been spoken: “One for Miss Sloane, please.” Heh.
This movie has a great opening scene that is immediately flipped on its head when Part One proper begins. Part One ends on a twist and Part Two fleshes that twist out in believable, but sort of chilling way. Part Three, having all the strings strung out, ties everything together in a way that makes sense and gives a satisfying conclusion.
I don’t want to reveal too much, because it is a fine film, artfully done and fun. I will say that it is, essentially, a caper film, taking place in ’30s Korea and Japan, whilst the Japanese were oppressing everyone in sight. The central element of the caper requires that Lady Hideko be seduced, and this involves both the titular handmaiden Sook-Hee and the scurrilous Count. The Lady has been raised by her perverse uncle from childhood to ultimately become his wife so that he can inherit her fortune. The Count has other ideas.
The perversion and seduction “requires” some fairly explicit sexual elements. Lady Hideko has also been raised by Uncle to conduct readings of erotica in front of a bunch of creepy Asian dudes. (Well, of course they’d be Asian. Come to think of it, they’re probably all supposed to be Japanese, because the Koreans haven’t ever really forgiven the Japanese for their atrocities.) Uncle has an impressive porn collection, basically.
Meanwhile Hideko and Sook-Hee are strongly attracted to each other, and this is also fairly explicit in its realization. It’s not gratuitous; it all serves the plot. But it’s not for the bashful.
It is, however, beautiful. And I don’t mean because Tae-Ri Kim and Min-Hee Kim (no relation, one hopes) are beautiful and lithe and, uh, well, no need to carry those thoughts on any further. But Koreans have an aesthetic that goes beyond the color coding we see in Hollywood films, and is on full display here. Besides vibrant colors, The Boy particularly noted that the camera was very selectively focused. Things were sometimes gauzy or blurry, but all to create a deliberate effect.
In short, it’s a clever, pretty, funny, and even romantic film. Probably one of the best of the year (along with the Korean horror flick The Wailing come to think of it). But maybe not one you take your mom to see.