The Year Of The Octopus
Slowly worming its way from periphery to center, Chan-wook Park’s latest opus follows Stoker, his Hollywood debut, and, among others, the films for which he’s most reputed, Old Boy and the two previous volumes of what is commonly called The Vengeance Trilogy, not to forget his perturbed vampire flick, Thirst. Considering he’s a Korean film maker and what his previous work has led us to expect, The Handmaiden is at first puzzling for its restraint.
A period drama set in a vast mansion during the Japanese occupation of the 1920, the plot revolves (several times, as it happens) around the titular handmaiden, not so bright (or is she?) Sookee (Tae-ri Kim), placed by a crook, pretend Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha, great) at the service of wealthy and unhinged Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, Adjaniesque), niece of a wealthy book collector (Jin-woong Jo). Uncle Kouzuki, a Japanese noble at heart, holds society in contempt and plans to marry his niece to consolidate the family fortune after his wife hung herself to a blossoming cherry tree. The Count’s project is, with Sookie’s help as a confidante, to substract Hideko from her uncle’s influence, marry her, steal her money and have her interned in a mental hospital.
Everything goes according to plan in the first third of the movie, following Sookie’s somehow half-hearted attempts to reach the Count’s goal, before the plot brutally twists us back to the beginning for a second version, this time Lady Hideko’s point of view. There was much more to see than what met the eye in the first act, we discover as another layer of deceit is peeled off the plot. And then it happens again during the third act, from the Count’s point of view, interspersed with scenes between the two girls he can not witness, but visualises as a brutal encounter with Uncle Kouzuki seals both their fate.
Positing at its center The Fisher’s Wife, Hokusai’s print of a woman copulating with two octopuses, The Handmaiden has an obvious origin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (remade by Hollywood with Sharon Stone and, weirdly, Isabelle Adjani), so anyone having seen one of these two movies won’t have any major difficulty finding one’s way among the plot intricacies. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, and the way The Handmaiden brings us almost full circle to what we did or didn’t expect is the mark of a superior film maker. The only thing that could be objected to Chan-wook Park is his weird choice of filter for the exterior scenes, although even that must have a meaning in the director’s vision.
The movie is undiluted eye candy, the virtuoso camera glossing over somptuous decor and costumes, but there is more to it than lavishness. The first act is as coy as the second is crude and the third is brutal, each perspective reflecting its pivotal character’s point of view. Abstract humour springs out of the (abundant) woodwork in a hanging scene or another one involving sliding doors and suitcases. Refined erotica is given centerstage during “lectures” given by Uncle Kousaki to a clique of noble Japanese gentlemen, his library/dungeon transforming into a No theater where a poised Lady Hideko performs various fetichistic rituals, on herself or on the guests. “Pain”, she reads, “is a cloth.”.
And then, still progressing from periphery to center, there is “the basement”, first a threat, than a place to be explored and finally a torture chamber where a huge octopus is confined in a small aquarium, and where both the male characters get their comeuppance. In Korea’s macho culture, men die with their dick attached to their body, even though they have been deprived of much anything else in the course of their attempt at owning woman’s beauty. The dialogue insists on statements like “she has a fine bone structure for a Korean woman”, or that Korea is a redneck country. Whatever the cultural gap though, poor and greedy Korea and sickly sophisticated Japan find a way to unite in some form of devious happy ending.
At 145′ the movie might seem like a challenge for the unacustomed viewer. Take the first act with patience, as what you see is far from being what you get in the end. It is exquisite cinema, in the perversion of its writing as in the beauty of its filming. Viewing advised.