Expectations are fully met in Park Chan-wook’s exquisitely filmed The Handmaiden (Agassi), an amusingly kinky erotic thriller and love story that brims with delicious surprises, making its two-and-a-half hours fly by. Though spiced up with nudity and verbal perversions for adult audiences, it never descends into the cheap and tawdry, and violence, considering this is from the cult director of Oldboy, remains surprisingly offscreen. Its bow in competition at Cannes should get the CJ Entertainment release off to a fast start.
The screenplay by Park and Chung Seo-kyung is a kind of meta-reading of Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, which tells the story of a girl from the slums in Victorian England who becomes an expert pickpocket, until drawn into a double-cross by a gentleman-swindler. Park’s playful reworking relocates the sting to 1930s Asia, where a Korean girl with bad intentions infiltrates the household of a wealthy young Japanese heiress. But nothing in the story goes as planned.
Told in three parts and from multiple points of view like a modern-day Rashomon, the narrative soon dissolves into an elusive fantasy-spoof that is not just erotic, but deeply ironic. The continually changing perspective on events may disorient the casual viewer, and it is certainly a film that bears a second viewing. Audiences who are up to a challenge are guaranteed a good time.
The first scene sets the tone. Standing forlornly in the pouring rain, beautiful young Sookee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) hands the baby at her breast to a group of poor women with babies of their own, as she prepares to be escorted to “the Jap’s house.” It’s the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the natural inference is she is about to become the unwilling concubine of Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a black-tongued old man of unparalleled wealth. But minutes later, as she arrives at his towering mansion deep in the woods, her role switches to Jane Eyre. She is merely assuming service as the new maidservant to the aristocratic orphan of the house, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then). But even this is a fiction: Sookee, a.k.a. Tamako, a.k.a. Okju, is really a bad-ass, street-smart petty thief sent by a suave master crook known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo, Assassination) to help him seduce and marry the young heiress. These dizzying, and quite amusing, revelations follow each other rapid-fire in the opening scenes, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.
The game is to second-guess where the next plot twist will be coming from. If at first the lovely Hideko appears to be a sheltered noblewoman unschooled in the ways of the world, there is more to her than meets the eye. Groomed from childhood to become the wife of her perv of an uncle, who makes no bones about needing her cash to buy more books, she tells Sookee about how, when she was little, her aunt (Moon So-ri) went mad and hanged herself from a cherry tree, becoming a ghost. Hideko also is under her uncle’s sinister threat of being taken to “the basement” if she ever tries to run away, a locale that remains out of sight until the final scenes.
With Sookee embedded in the household and growing close — very close, after a sexy tooth-rubbing scene — to his prey Hideko, the Count stages a dapper, self-assured entrance. He presents himself to uncle Kouzuki, a collector of rare erotic books, as a painter from a noble family fallen into ruin, and is hired to forge illustrations for new books Kouzuki intends to sell as originals. One evening, he invites half a dozen gentlemen in black tie to a reading of some choice tales from his collection. The reader is Hideko, dressed up in full geisha attire, and the way she interprets the stories — using more than just words — leaves the men panting and tightly crossing their legs.
In marked contrast to the tongue-in-cheek fetishism of these Marquis De Sade-style erotic readings for horny gentlemen are two quite explicit lesbian love scenes that leave little to the imagination. Unexpected and exhilarating, they signal the ability of the female characters to make their own choices and break out of the circle of deceit and smutty sex around them. While the actresses are sheer eye candy in the nude, Park sidesteps pornography through irony and repetition, as the key scene is relived from different p.o.v.s. It’s one of the film’s most complicated tricks.
Just as the eerie housekeeper Mrs. Sasaki (Kim Hae-sook) describes Hideko’s manse as a unique style meeting of East and West, so goes the exquisite tech work. Production design combines heavy, dark Victorian interiors with the lightness of Japanese sets, the cinematography culminates in a misty sequence on a magical fantasy lake, and Cho Young-wuk’s silken score, alternating with Mozart and Rameau, sets a light tone.
Strangely enough, while the original title Agassi can be translated simply as “young lady,” the English title The Handmaiden refers to one character and the French Mademoiselle to another. It all depends on how you look at it.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competing)
Production companies: Moho Films, Yong Film
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on a novel by Sarah Waters
Producers: Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim
Co-producers: Yoon Suk-chan, Kim Jong-dae, Wonjo Jeong
Executive producer: Miky Lee
Director of photography: Chung Chung-hoon
Production designer: Ryu Seong-hee
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
World sales: CJ Entertainment
Not rated, 145 minutes