Tuesday 18 April 2017

The Handmaiden (aka Ah-ga-ssi)

Ben Wa Like Beckham

The Handmaiden (aka Ah-ga-ssi)
South Korea 2016 Directed by Chan-wook Park
UK cinema release print.

Chan-wook Park is one of those directors I seem to react differently to every time I see a new movie by him. For instance, I found the first two films in his ‘vengeance trilogy’, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy to be more miss than hit, whereas I loved the third part, Lady Vengeance and, in a way, I guess I quite enjoyed his ‘American movie’ Stoker, to a certain extent.

The Handmaiden is an ‘adaptation’ of the Sarah Walters novel Fingersmith, which was already filmed as a TV show by the BBC. Since I’ve not read the original novel nor seen the original TV show, I can’t in all honesty say whether this is a truthful adaptation of the novel or not... although after Ms. Walters saw the screenplay it is alleged she asked the writer/director to instead credit is as ‘inspired’ by the novel so... I’m guessing not. And by the looks of it, the whole of the third part of the film, which is split up into three acts as the original, is completely different and with a different outcome to the source material. I understand it’s a lot more upbeat than the original which, in a way, surprised me since it’s Chan-wook Park we’re dealing with here but, of course, that’s what’s great about cinema... it can sometimes surprise you if you’re able to drop your guard for long enough.

The film, in its initial set up, tells the story of ‘The Count’, played brilliantly by Jung-woo Ha and his collaborator Sook-Hee, played even more amazingly by Tae-ri Kim. She infiltrates the house of The Count’s romantic interest as her handmaiden in order that the lady of the house,  Lady Hideko, played just as amazingly by Min-hee Kim, can be ‘gaslighted’ in order for her ‘fortune’ to be wrested from her as she is committed to an insane asylum. And that’s the surface set up and I’m not going to go into too much detail about it because, as with many of these movies dealing with gaslighting, there’s a twist or three in the tail and I have to say my hat off to Park for actually surprising me when I should have been paying more attention, with a delicious twist I’m amazed I missed at the end of the first act. I honestly don’t know how I missed that one.

All I can say is that I must have been so distracted by the gorgeous cinematography, the slow and hypnotic pacing and the beautiful editing of the piece that I was so thoroughly entranced by the mise-en-scene as to be so completely taken in with something which, in a movie by any other director, perhaps, I would have seen coming from the first five minutes. So my respect for this guy goes up another notch, it has to be said.

However, it’s also true to say that there is more than one twist in the movie and the other twist at the end of the second act was something I totally saw, pretty much straight away after the first twist was revealed... so there’s that. I did, at least, retain my dignity in the face of chicanery in the second and third parts of the movie, as the beautiful combination of pitch perfect performances under some wonderful lighting coupled with some absolutely essential girl on girl action threatened to sweep away any further mental cogitation from the dank recesses of my flickering, watching brain.

Another rich texture in the movie was the musical score, which seemed to be a combination of the compositions of Yeong-wook Jo coupled with a fair few ‘found’ pieces of music, needle dropped into the soundtrack. I did, actually, notice the patchwork effect of the different styles of music threatening to tug at the scenes of the overall scoring element of the movie at times but it actually all just about manages to work without jarring the continuity of the ear too much.

It's a slow burn of a movie and fans of 'Hollywood pacing only' are possibly advised not to sit through this one as the running time on this is not too far shy of three hours. Frankly, though, any cinephile worth their celluloid salt is going to want to see this movie because it’s such a perfect blend of the various elements of the cinematic art/craft that the sumptuous design and elegance with which the actors portray the characters is so haunting that you’ll be thinking about certain shots still a day or two later.

Fans of the director may find The Handmaiden a little more subtle in its approach to a subject matter which is, lets face it, a far from subtle style of melodrama but I don’t think any Park fans will be disappointed with this movie, for sure. There is beauty in pretty much every image, even when those images are dealing with torture and death. A deftly handled film which, despite its running time, doesn’t outstay its welcome and lets you leave the cinema feeling like you’ve really watched something worth seeing... which, of course, you have. Looking on interestedly now, to see what Park will be up to next.

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