Review: Park Chan-wook breaks from violent past with sensual tale The Handmaiden

Min-hee Kim, Jin-woong Jo, Kim Tae-ri and Ha Jung-woo in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Picture: C

Min-hee Kim, Jin-woong Jo, Kim Tae-ri and Ha Jung-woo in Park Chan-wooks The Handmaiden. Picture: Curzon Artificial Eye - Credit: ©Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Best known for his violent Vengeance trilogy, the South Korean director has made perhaps his finest film with a good yarn based on Sarah Walters' novel.

The Handmaiden (18)

****

Weening yourself off an addiction is a terrible thing, but if that addiction is violence, then it's probably worth the effort.

In one of his previous films, Thirst, South Korean director Park Chan-wook imagined a devout priest, who becomes a vampire and has to deal with how to control urges that repulse him.


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Park gained international infamy with his Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr V, Lady V and Oldboy). Since its conclusion he has been flailing around trying to find something to take it place and largely failing.

Now though he has turned to a novel by British novelist Sarah Walters, one of her Victorian lesbian tales, and has found his salvation.

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He has sublimated his violent tendencies with sex, and made perhaps his finest film. What gets you first is the old fashioned virtue of a good yarn.

Set in the 1930s during Japanese occupation Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim), an expert pick pocket and thief is engaged by a swindler (Jung-woo Ha) to work as a handmaiden to a rich Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim) to advance his scheme to wrest her from the strict control of her sinister uncle (Jin-woong Jo) and persuade her to elope with him. It is all a little contrived but gripping and then just before the hour mark, the story pulls the rug from beneath us and things get really interesting.

Though it may represent a break with his most celebrated films there is still plenty of dark overtones, and towards the end, overt nastiness.

Mostly though it is sensual and erotic: not hot and heavy, more cold and controlled. The sinister uncle is a bibliophile, and the whole film has the marvellous sense of slowly turning the pages of a really impressive book, written in detailed and ornate prose, that you never want to finish.

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