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Review: Female leads stand out in ‘The Handmaiden’

Despite male gaze debate, women take center stage in twisted, thrilling love story

May 27,2016
Top and above left: Still cuts from Park Chan-wook’s lesbian thriller “The Handmaiden.” Above right: From left, Park and four lead actors - Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri and Cho Jin-woong - answer questions during a press junket in Seoul on Wednesday. [CJ ENTERTAINMENT, NEWSIS]
“The Handmaiden” is a culmination of visual ambitions that Park Chan-wook has accumulated over the 20 or so years of his illustrious career.

So much so that what comes in between the countless number of picturesque moments degenerates into mere means of bridging one of those scenes to another.

Korean auteur Park returned from the Cannes Film Festival to present his latest much-talked about film “The Handmaiden” to the Korean press on Wednesday.

“I wasn’t able to win at Cannes. … But this is by far my most favorite film I’ve made so far,” the 53-year-old said.

“As I built on my experience with film, I started to have hope of making a film that would last long in people’s memory. … Enjoying the film at the same time is important, but planting things that people would notice on their second viewing was also my focal point,” he said.

Living up to the buzz it created at the French film festival, the film - which is based on award-winning novelist Sarah Waters’ lesbian thriller “Fingersmith” - is filled with visual aesthetics, steamy eroticism and flawless performances, creating one fine, polished movie.

The film is divided into three parts, starting with the story of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a money-hungry pickpocket who is tasked with luring Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) into marrying Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) in return for a share of Hideko’s future inherited fortune.

Standing behind the innocent Hideko is her aged yet mysterious guardian (Cho Jin-woong), who seems interested in nothing other than spending his time in his extravagant quasi-Japanese, quasi-Western-style library.

The second part takes the point of view of Lady Hideko followed by that of Count Fujiwara. There are gaps in time between each part, so the three parts do not exactly overlap. There is extra fun in noticing details that were missed in previous parts.



Dazzling visuals

As Park described the grand library of the lady’s guardian as the fifth character of his movie, the artistic backdrops of the film play a pivotal role in determining its atmosphere.

The exterior of the library is decorated with Western-style bookshelves, while the inside shifts to traditional Japanese-style flooring called tatami, where visitors have to take off their shoes and sit on the floor.

What is even more eye-catching, especially for those interested in design and fashion, is Lady Hideko’s Victorian-era room filled with dark-colored antique furniture and adorned with patterned upholstery, curtains and wallpaper. Each closet is filled clothes and shoes, both Japanese-style kimonos and Western-style dresses, as well as accessories including over-the-top hats and statement earrings.

When Kim Min-hee wears each of her 25 costumes, with her makeup applied to perfection, each of her scenes becomes a work of art itself.

The versatile music score in which the main theme is grand orchestral pieces playing along with quirky Korean folk songs from the ’70s adds an exotic yet attractive vibe to the film.



Male gaze controversy

Whenever there is a lesbian film that involves sex scenes, it cannot escape being surrounded in controversy over the male gaze.

“Blue is the Warmest Color,” a 2003 Palme d’Or winner, was under fire for including an excessive amount of nudity. “Carol” (2015), which decided not to include any explicit bedroom scenes, barely avoided criticism.

Of course, considering Park’s style of pushing everything to the extreme, there was no chance that such scenes would have been omitted.

“The Handmaiden” landed directly in the center of criticism over portraying non-heterosexual relationships with too much sexuality. The provocative bedroom scenes involving the two female characters, which appear a couple of times, expose the maximum amount of skin and feature a very peculiar set of tools.

For that reason, the film needed to be scrutinized for unleashing males’ misogynist fantasies. Park as well as the two Kims did not hesitate to throw themselves into the scenes.

But what should be considered more important is whether the female characters stopped at being exploited to fulfill males’ sensual fantasies. In fact, it doesn’t end like that in “The Handmaiden.”

From start to finish, despite the changing perspectives, it is the women who take central actions in moving the whole plot.

Male characters, especially Count Fujiwara’s short-sighted thinking and ludicrous behavior, seem as if they were planted in the film to generate laughs and nothing more, while the female leads do the serious and meaningful stuff.

When asked how he feels about negative responses to his film, Park didn’t say much but said he wants to ask critics which specific scenes are perceived as “male-gazed.”



Newfound talent

Yet another revelation in the film is the daring performance by newcomer Kim Tae-ri, who doesn’t fall short of her counterparts in terms of grabbing audiences’ attention on screen.

In contrast to Lady Hideko, who possesses more of a complex mind and mysterious background, Sook-hee’s plays her cards straight. And that kind of bold gestures and language comes out all too naturally from Kim.

Maybe it is because of the characters’ styles, but at one point Kim Min-hee’s acting seem emotionless - not in an intentional, smart way but more in a dull way - next to Kim Tae-ri, who nails every line with the right emotion and tone.

Director Park said that her boldness that wouldn’t be overwhelmed by her towering co-stars was what caught his eye during auditions. Both in the movie as well as during press events, the 26-year-old rookie actress stole the spotlight with her infectious personality, which all of us hope will remain untainted as she rises to fame.

“The Handmaiden” will be released nationwide June 1.

BY JIN EUN-SOO [jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr]


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