One of my favorite things about this year's Philadelphia Film Festival was seeing two films that are set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. As a history nerd, it isn’t an era that I am deeply familiar with, and as a film nerd, it isn’t an era I’ve been able to see dramatized on screen, either. And it so happens that they are both wonderful films. Age of Shadows from Kim Jee-woon is more directly about the occupation, following a group of those in the resistance as they scheme against one of their own turned occupier. But Park Chan-wook’s newest film, The Handmaiden, uses the occupation as a backdrop. Essential to the story, but more thematically connected than the focal point. The Handmaiden is adapted from the novel Fingersmith, but Park Chan-wook changed the setting for the story from Victorian England to occupied Korea. The film opens on a conman (Ha Jung-woo) posing as Count Fujiwara, a translator to Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of rare erotica. But Fujiwara’s true aim is to marry Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Kouzuki’s niece, as she is the heiress to her family’s mining fortune. To seduce her, Fujiwara employs Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a pickpocket, to become Lady Hideko’s personal attendant, and help convince her that she should marry Fujiwara instead of her uncle. The plan, however, may not be as it seems.
Maybe it shouldn’t be required- in 2016- to note that The Handmaiden turns on a romance between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee, but it certainly still feels noteworthy. Just as last year’s The Duke of Burgundy centered on a lesbian relationship, but could have reasonably been about any couple, this film isn’t about what it means to be a lesbian in occupied Korea, it is about what it means to love someone despite the differences in social station, the turbulent political situation, and with a large inheritance at stake. And it’s not that the film downplays it, as Park Chan-wook puts it front and center, shooting one of the most sensual sex scenes ever committed to the screen. It’s just that the film isn’t putting it on display to be gawked at, it's there to be relatable. It has this much in common with his previous film, Stoker, exploring women discovering their sexuality in a way that is curious but never judgmental.
Park Chan-wook also delivers an excellent con artist film. Rather than following the current tropes, in which the con artist tricks the audience as well as the other characters, Park Chan-wook pulls a fast one on the viewer. As the film twists and turns, new perspectives thwart viewer expectations. Some scenes are revisited multiple times, revealing new aspects to the plot, and further depth to the characters. It’s a slow burn, but always riveting, even if the film suffers some pacing issues for it. The long middle act makes the ending seem a bit rushed, but no less satisfying when certain characters meet their fate.
And on top of that, The Handmaiden is a gorgeous film. The camera movement, the blocking, all of the basic fundamentals of filmmaking seem effortless here, in perfect harmony with the film’s subject and mood. This might be more obvious to me in films where I don't speak the language, but even for a film with a plot this complex, it would be possible to follow the entire story just through where the camera focuses. If films are supposed to show, not tell, this one is a masterclass.
The Handmaiden opens in Philly theaters today.