With this being the 69th Festival de Cannes, one would have expected the festival might have held Gaspar Noe’s Love for one year just to screen it now instead of last year. But Park Chan-wook is an apt replacement in providing some lesbian yin and yang, and The Handmaiden is a better film to boot, even if that is not a major achievement. Ranging from sensual to erotic to trashy, depending on who you talk to, the Korean director’s third competition entry (after Oldboy and Thirst) is elegantly made and intricately plotted, but stays firmly on the surface and veers into camp in some places. Whether it will emulate his previous entries and win a prize next Sunday is another matter, and on first consideration unlikely.
Based on British author Sarah Waters’ highly lauded novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden sets its web of deception in 1930s colonial Korea and Japan. The orphan and skilled pickpocket Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is enlisted by a con man (Ha Jung-woo) to ensnare the rich Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and make off with her money. Hideko lives under the oppressive domination of her uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who makes her read Japanese erotic stories (well, porn, really) to a group of upperclass perverts. Sookee is hired as Hideko’s new handmaiden, with the plan being for the swindler to swoop in posing as a Japanese count set on eloping with Hideko, egged on by Sookee. But unexpectedly, Hideko and Sookee take to each other more than an heiress and her handmaiden should, the latter taking that job title too literally perhaps. But is it part of Sookee’s deception, or is she really developing feelings for Hideko?
The fun of Park’s film lies in his skillful peeling of the layers of lies among the three main characters. It’s a deepening of the tale, though not on an intellectual level. The Handmaiden doesn’t come with a message, unless you find the ending some revelatory, progressive statement. It is a mere divertissement, and at two and a half hours a long one too, a sexy tale gleefully told. Too gleeful at times, mainly in its depiction of the uncle and his merry band of perverts. Park intends comedic effect, but it comes off forced and doesn’t gel well with the sensual tone of the rest of the film.
Where the film does excel is in its technicals. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon puts his anamorphic lens to good use in both the wide open and the confined spaces of Hideko and Kouzuki’s mansion, and Park’s blocking is elegant and aesthetically in league with the Japanese designs of the mansion and the surrounding gardens. It rarely conveys any meaning, but it sure is pretty to look at. As is anything else in the design really, from the meticulously created Japanese erotic art to Hideko’s coiffure and the architecture of the house, a mixture of Japanese and Western colonial style. The acting is competent, although the two actresses unfortunately fail to convey an element that is essential for this story: their burning love for each other. For all of the naked wringing and attempts to emulate the current festival’s logo, it all feels purely sexual. As with the rest of The Handmaiden, their affair is mainly glossy varnish in service of the plot and the storytelling.
In essence, The Handmaiden is the kind of film that has to be enjoyed in the moment, and is not something that will linger long. Whether it is a good adaptation of the novel I cannot say (I haven’t read it), but given the praise that Waters’ novel received that probably went a little deeper into the relationship of the two women. Even if not, The Handmaiden is a missed chance by Park to inject a new classic into the woefully small genre of lesbian films. Blue is the Warmest Color this is not. Sure, the sex is there (let’s see if the ‘male gaze’ criticism pops up again), but the passion is lacking.