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.
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.— Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter
Tue-Thu November 29-December 1, 2016, 7:30 only, Muenzinger Auditorium
South Korea, 2016, in Korean [w/ Eng. subtitles], Color, 144 min, 2.35 : 1
Director: Chan-wook Park, Writer: Chan-wook Park, Original Story: Sarah Waters, Cast: Kim Min-Hie, Kim Tae-Ri, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook