Cannes 2016: The Handmaiden review

Having bagged the Grand Jury Prize for Oldboy in 2003, Park Chan-wook returns to Cannes with a film that has a good chance of winning the Palme d'Or. A masterful adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transplants the action from Victorian England to Korea and Japan, but the sense of Gothic sexual hypocrisy and feminist fightback remains firmly in place. Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is a Korean artful dodger, a famed pickpocket whose mother was hanged. She lives with a gang of thieves who run a profitable sideline in babies for Japanese adoption.

A scheming conman known as The Count (Ha Jung-woo) has an ambitious plot that if successful will lift her out of poverty forever. He has managed to trick a rich Korean antiquary Kouzouki (Cho Jin-woong), who is posing as Japanese. Awed by the Count's Japanese heritage and apparent nobility, Kouzouki also employs him in forging books which he has sold at auction but doesn't wish to part from. The Count produces a forgery and it's that book which is sent off. He also plans to marry his niece Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who otherwise holds the family fortune. Employing Sookee as the new handmaiden to the lady, the Count sets about (with this inside help) inveigling Hideko to fall for him and elope - at which point they'd pack her off to the nut house. Told in three parts, Park's film is full of constant detail and surprises.

The house itself is a mélange of western and specifically English influences and a more traditional Japanese wing. There is a library of precious books protected by a porcelain snake and also a basement in which something pants, squirms and drips waiting for the most violent desires to be played out. Buttons and dolls, looming portraits and a hat box with coiled rope are all imbued with plot significance and the smallest hat pin can be a key that will unlock another devious stratagem. The film reveals its twists and turns with a delicate hand and always manages to stay one step ahead of the audience, even as most of those watching will surrender to the hypnotic erotic charge that runs through the film. The fatal ménage a trois is deceptive as seduction comes from unexpected quarters and Sookee must contend with her own feelings for Hideko as a genuine affection and attraction grows between them. A sharp tooth is smoothed down so it won't cut the flesh of her mouth in a scene of remarkable intimacy.

Although not as 'full-on' as the director's celebrated Vengeance trilogy, The Handmaiden stills contains some moments of wincing visceral violence: its own sharp tooth perhaps. And its view of the loathsomeness of men and violent pornography is offset by its own voyeuristic tendencies. As a feminist lesbian love story the contender would make for a fitting companion piece to 2013 Palme d'Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Colour. What a double bill that would be! The sumptuous cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon glides over the costumes, drapery and heavy furniture, but isn't afraid to crash zoom when the moment calls for it either. This is consummate filmmaking with all the performances pitch perfect and all departments delivering the goods. It's also crazy fun.

The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty


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