REVIEW: The Handmaiden

18 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden” boasts absolutely stunning costumes, set design and cinematography – not to mention some truly devoted actors to make magic happen in the frame. This is all very necessary for a film that makes its audience watch the same story play out three separate times over the course of nearly two and a half hours. Every section adds perspective to the other, but getting to that enlightened place is equal parts exhausting and rewarding.

This Korean-set caper details the exploits of Sook-hee, a handmaiden who enters the home of the occupying Japanese heiress Lady Hideiko, as she attempts to guide her employer to marry a conman who will then commit her to an asylum and steal her family’s fortune. What ensues is something akin to a more erotic “Gone Girl” with stunning reversals. But wait, there’s more – “The Handmaiden” features some screwball comedy flourishes that make the proceedings even wilder! There’s also erotic fiction reading, kinky sex and some savagely violent beatdowns.

Park maintains a sharp feminist eye throughout, paying close attention to the female solidarity that emerges between Sook-hee and Hideiko as they realize how men attempt to play them off each other for selfish ends. Each section of the triptych adds more dimensionality and intrigue to their relationship. While “The Handmaiden” may occasionally drag in redundancy, it never gets boring to observe their unconventional power dynamic shift around.  B+

REVIEW: Stoker

22 09 2014

When I left “Stoker,” I was not entirely sure whether I liked or loathed it.  The sentiment was distinct from the normal ambivalence that I feel about rather bland, unremarkable films.  Rarely had such conflicting emotions about a work of art seemed so passionless to me.

Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut certainly has a cool neo-Hitchcock vibe to it, particularly in its impressive editing and heavy dependence on atmosphere.  Very little happens in “Stoker,” which revolves around an odd teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), once her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in to “comfort” her recently widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  They interact in cryptic ways, which are often so vague that only the language of the camera gives any clue as to what to make of it.

At first, this indistinctness is chillingly beguiling.  But after a while, “Stoker” just starts to feel like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I had no idea where the movie was going until the last 30 minutes, largely because it lacked a firm narrative.  And when there is little story to follow, all attention shifts to aesthetics.  With all that extra attention, Park’s style reveals itself as rather empty.

Perhaps “Stoker” can approximate a Hitchcock thriller in terms of finesse. But Hitch had compassion for his characters, which is such a crucial X factor that has led his work to retain such a foothold in the public imagination.  Park, on the other hand, builds such a distance between us and the characters that I found myself retreating into my own imagination to think about the next movie on my agenda.  B-2stars