아가씨 | The Handmaiden (2016)
After sitting dormant for the past two or three years, Cinema of South Korea returns on the global stage with the genre it does better than anyone else on the planet and makes a splash that’s big enough to send ripples through the world of filmmaking once again. And all of it is spearheaded by none other than one of the finest auteurs of our time, Park Chan-wook, for his latest is a masterwork of genre filmmaking that finds the revered filmmaker in sublime form, and is all the more uplifted by his sweeping cinematic vision & precision craftsmanship to cement its spot amongst the best films of 2016.
Set in Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden concerns a pickpocket named Sook-hee who’s recruited by Fujiwara, a conman posing as a Japanese Count, to serve as a maidservant to a Japanese heiress Lady Hideko, who lives a secluded life on a large countryside mansion with his domineering uncle, Kouzuki. Hired to assist Fujiwara in seducing the Lady, only to later commit her to an asylum and steal her inheritance, Sook-hee finds herself more n more drawn to Hideko’s alluring beauty & innocence and after an unexpected encounter, begins having second thoughts about going through with the original plan.
Co-written, co-produced & directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Joint Security Area & Stoker), The Handmaiden finds the esteemed storyteller returning to his roots after his stint at Hollywood and makes splendid use of all his trademarks, be it the tightly-knitted plot structure, intricately layered themes, sumptuous production design, visually arresting photography, idiosyncratic but full-bodied characters or mesmerising score, which seamlessly entwine with his patented elements of dark comedy, clever twists & explicit violence to deliver an erotic psychological thriller that’s arguably his most refined & beautiful work to date.
The ornamental set pieces & lush locations provide its tale a setting that’s as steeped in mystery as it is in beauty, and plays a vital role in improving the tone & texture of its visual design. Added enhancement comes from its impeccable cinematography that makes exquisite use of smooth camera movements, colour palette & perfect lighting to radiate a sense of warmth while an undercurrent of uncertainty keeps brewing beneath the surface. Clocking at 145 minutes, the narrative employs a three-part structure, each told from a different character’s perspective, and is expertly edited from start to finish. Pacing is spot-on while its evocative score remains in sync with the unfolding events at all times.
Coming to the performances, The Handmaiden features an interesting cast in Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo & Cho Jin-woong, with both ladies leaving a lasting impression in their respective roles. Min-hee illustrates the fragility & mysteriousness of Lady Hideko with finesse while Tae-ri does a fabulous job at showcasing Sook-hee struggle between her personal desires & the job she was chosen for, plus her comic timing is just brilliant. The sexual tension between Hideko & her servant is the core ingredient that makes this film work and Chan-wook captures it with genuine intimacy & tenderness. Jung-woo plays Count Fujiwara and does well with what he’s given while Jin-woong renders the perverted nature of Uncle Kouzuki with certitude.
On an overall scale, The Handmaiden finds the visionary filmmaker in complete control of his craft, and is an erotic thriller for the ages. It is just as accomplished on technical scale as it is adept in the storytelling department, and balances each n every aspect with remarkable flair, not to mention that all these elements work together in near-perfect harmony from beginning to end. My expectations were quite high, given the creative force behind it, and yet it managed to live up to the hype and even surpassed it on few occasions. Absolutely deserving of all its accolades and totally worth your time & money, The Handmaiden is another dark, twisted & deliciously thrilling cinema from an assured artist and is possibly his finest directional effort since his soul-shattering revenge fable, Oldboy. Strongly recommended.