Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri
South Korea 2016
Park Chan-wook’s latest film is fuelled with surprises, and they are a pure joy to witness unfold.
Set in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, a con man known as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) involves the equally beautiful and talented Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) in his deceitful plan to marry a Japanese noblewoman (Kim Min-hee) in order to strip her of her inheritance. However, soon after Sookee has been employed as Lady Hideko’s maid, her criminal intents waver as she gradually falls in love with her beguiling mistress. While a perverted uncle uses Hideko for his own pleasures by making her read to him and his business partners from his massive collection of antique erotica, a secret passion develops between the two women, forcing them to choose between lies or love as the sexual tension reaches its climax.
As is the case with most of Park’s œuvre, nothing in The Handmaiden is as it seems. The plot is deliciously twisted, while perceptions and truths are consistently challenged. And as elaborate as it may seem at first sight, the story never unravels or confuses. Park has delivered a film that is fuelled with surprises, and they are a pure joy to witness unfold.
Following his first foray into Hollywood cinema with his impressive English language debut Stoker, the Korean director returns to his homeland with yet another masterwork. The Handmaiden is a gorgeously crafted tale of crooks and lovers, sex and lies, perversion and pleasure. The way Park uses colours and locations is pure cinematic seduction, luring the viewer into an intoxicating web of desires and deceptions that is impossible to resist.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
Stoker marks Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first foray into making a Hollywood feature in English, but he has not strayed too far from his roots. Following on from the themes he explored in his previous movies, Stoker is a sexually deviant tale of lust, jealousy and the very unenviable task of coming of age, explored with much of Park’s customary visual style. Closer to last year’s Korean hit The Taste of Money or even its prequel, The Housemaid (2010), than anything released in the mainstream, Stoker is a gorgeous marriage of style and substance.
The story revolves around 18-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose life is turned upside down following the death of her father in a tragic car accident. Left with her emotionally unstable mother (Nichole Kidman), India is further thrown into disarray with the arrival of her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode): a man hitherto unknown to her and who might have ulterior motives.
The performances from the trio of leads is impressive: the dance between Charlie and India is set to a vicious and sexual beat – Wasikowska and Goode are more than adept at capturing it – while Kidman brings a sense of disdain and jealousy to her character that Bette Davis would’ve been proud of. Wentworth Miller’s script is an unfolding joy: taking its cue from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), it explores the story with a sense of sexual deviancy that Hitchcock would surely have approved of, while Park’s use of visual motifs within the film recalls the more abstract images in Vertigo (1958). However, the film’s real coup is the use of physical space. It is deliberate in its attempt to disorient the viewer: impossible exits and entrances, sudden shifts within rooms and a lot more bring to mind the architectural deliberations of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves.
Something must also be said for the incredible supercharged soundtrack by Clint Mansell, to which is added a Philip Glass piece that captures the emotional glass heart of the film perfectly. Emily Wells is the icing on the cake of what might indeed be the best soundtrack of the year, alongside Maniac.
Although the film will have its detractors, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Park has achieved here: a Korean movie in Hollywood clothing, Stoker is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
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