Monday, December 26, 2016

The Handmaiden (2016)

As it happens, I overheard numerous complaints all week in real life and on Facebook about the length of The Handmaiden: cautions that it was long, real-time anguish from someone realizing too late he had arrived at a long movie, even bathroom jokes, etc. So heads up everybody. The Handmaiden is well over two hours, at 144 minutes, and it's good to be prepared, as it moves at a leisurely pace. I thought it was ravishing good fun, not referring specifically to the generous sex scenes, and I got a great big kick out of the way it clanked and swooped along. It's funny and harrowing and full of surprises. It's divided into three parts, the first two of which advance and bend reality in a show of literary legerdemain, as Park likes to do it. What you see is not always what you get, and I really shouldn't say more than that. A Japanese woman engaged to her uncle takes a handmaiden, who is part of an elaborate scheme—bup bup! That's all I can say. I've seen a couple of other pictures by Korean director and cowriter Chan-wook Park, most notably Oldboy, probably his most famous, as well as I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, which is more in the way of a throwaway. What I like most about The Handmaiden is how much it feels like a big swooning novel, at pains to yoke together two separate narrative styles—the British gothic as in Wuthering Heights or Oliver Twist combined with a Japanese chamber drama about love and deceit. So at pains is Park to emphasize this double whammy that he sets it in a mansion which is itself half English countryside manor and half Japanese villa. In Korea. By obvious careful design. I'm sure a lot of cultural business between Japan and Korea, and England too, sailed right over my head—among other things, it's set in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. The subtitles are careful to distinguish the two languages, and the circumstances under which either is spoken in the story carry many ambiguous meanings. In the third section the whole thing becomes a bit of a runaway happy ending train, but that's just the kind of thing we need at this time of year, innit? Along with, for the delectation of the male gaze, a bunch of reasonably hot lesbian sex scenes. Also, it wouldn't be complete without shocking violence, so look out for that too. If I'm going to complain about this, and I really don't want to, it's more about the tidy wrap-up. I liked it more in the first two sections when it was sprawling and opening wider and wider and the ground was always shifting. Park is good at that, and this movie is a pretty good time. Have you heard that it's long?

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