The Handmaiden and the Mastery of Cinema

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Sometimes a director’s name is enough to make a movie worth watching. There is no need for glamorous actors, nor for a captivating storyline; a cinephile does not even need to watch the trailer to rush to the movie theatre. The director’s mise-en-scène – the authorial essence that makes a film valuable and unique – is the real protagonist. Today, it looks like we have lost this fashion for auteurs, filmmakers whose individual styles and complete control over all elements of production give a film their personal stamp, and the industry has just a few iconic directors with such potential left. One of these, is most definitely the South Korean Park Chank-Wook. During his brilliant career, the director produced masterpieces of the calibre of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Thirst (2009), winning the most prestigious awards in Cannes, Berlin and Venice Film Festivals. This year, he returns with his latest work, Ag-ha-ssi –  or, in English, The Handmaiden – presented at the BFI London Film Festival.

It is not an easy task to talk about the intricate plot of The Handmaiden without risking spoiling the movie. Therefore, I will limit myself saying that the narrative is centred around a Korean pickpocket woman who is hired by a sly con man to swindle a wealthy Japanese heiress, becoming her handmaiden. Of course, there is much more to find out, with several radical plot twists that reshape the movie’s structure completely. The film is divided in three chapters, and the audience must think back at the end of each section to reconnect the complex events in the storyline. The motion picture full of surprises is smartly adapted from the novel Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sara Waters, and set from the Victorian age of the book to the 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The film, presenting also the interesting clash of Asian cultures between Korea and Japan, is flavoured with irony, a remarkable choice for the historical theme. It is here that comes into play the mastery of Park Chan-Wook. His exceptional style, with stunning, symbolical shots of a close-to-perfect cinematography, leads to the astonishing structure of the film. A structure that, at its core, is a mixture of genres: from a curios humouristic beginning, that continues as a drama, evolving into a thriller, passing through the horror and the adventure, and even lightening it up with some pornography. It is almost a chemical reaction in the human body, that Park Chan-Wook has carefully analysed in order to make of this film an emotional roller coaster. Every element, detail, genre, is introduced at the right moment and in the correct place to physically and psychologically prepare the audience for the following scene, in order to enjoy the visceral experience of watching the film in the best possible way. For instance, when there are some explicitly pornographic scenes, they are meant to excite the spectators as much as the protagonists involved, so that they will have a precise attitude to the scene that follows. Obviously, this is a genuine cinematic achievement, that could technically count as a filmic evolution, that only a genius could accomplish… A true master of cinema.

Ultimately, the movie is about a brilliant vengeance, even though it conveys a message of freedom. Now more than ever, cinema needs innovative movies like this one, it requires auteurs like Park Chan-Wook. Thus, for all the people who are looking for an experience rather than simply a good movie, The Handmaiden will be released on 17th February 2017. Do not miss it.

– Jack Salvadori

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