Lush And Romantic 'Handmaiden' Is The Year's Most Irresistible Love Story

Oct 28, 2016
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "The Handmaiden" by Korean director Park Chan-wook. It's a major reworking of the Victorian-era erotic thriller "Fingersmith" by Welsh-born novelist Sarah Waters. The BBC adapted the novel into a miniseries in 2005. Here's David.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Korean Park Chan-wook would be the last director I'd have figured could make a lush, romantic melodrama like "The Handmaiden," which he adapted from the well-known British novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. Park is the auteur behind some critically lauded and exceedingly cruel quasi-horror films. Among them, "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," "Lady Vengeance" and the English language "Stoker." I was one of those critics who lauded the first three, but I got tired of the director's reflexive nihilism and his reliance on empty shocks.

He started to remind me of lesser punk rockers. But the formal constraints of "The Handmaiden" do wonders for him. The surface is gorgeous while the director's perversity bubbles up from beneath. Park has shifted the story's setting from England to Korea in the 1930s under Japanese occupation. That's crucial because the main characters, all Korean, are either pretending to be Japanese or, out of a wish to rise in society, embracing Japanese culture. Different colored subtitles help us non-Asian-language-speakers follow the movement back and forth between Japanese and, often in secret, Korean.

Different languages, different personas, different ways of styling oneself. The title character, Sook-Hee, played by Kim Tae-ri, is a fraud. She's been enlisted by Ha Jung-woo's Count Fujiwara, who is neither a count nor, as his assumed name would suggest, Japanese. He's a Korean con artist with a scheme to marry the niece of a rich Korean book dealer, a man who's aping Japanese ways. Then he'll commit the girl to an asylum and take off with her sizable inheritance. Sook-Hee is meant to serve the lady, Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee and push her into the arms of the devilishly handsome bogus count.

So far, so simple. But "The Handmaiden" is in three chapters, each told from a different point of view and each of which fills in gaps we've missed in the previous go-round. I found the first chapter beautiful but slow, a bit of a narcotic. It's when the twists began and then the twists on the twists that I started to get excited. There's little romantic chemistry between the fake count and Lady Hideko and even less between him and the handmaiden Sook-Hee. They loathe each other.

But, wow, are there sparks between the women. Hideko is very young and as we come to realize, much abused by the uncle who raised her. He trained her harshly in Japanese manners and exposed her to the sadomasochistic pageants he staged for guests. Sook-Hee becomes Hideko's only confidant, a sister and then a lover. Park still has his punkish spirit only it's channeled here with un-punkish discipline and style. The demonic uncle's house is a riot of architectural influences, Western and Japanese. The shoji screens create what look like puppet stages within puppet stages on which the characters play their parts.

The sweeping score by Jo Yeong-wook is indispensable to the mood. It turns the movie's undercurrents into crashing waves of melody. Above all, "The Handmaiden," after its slow start, is fun. The violence is spare, nonexistent until the end. But the emotional violence is always palpable thanks in part to female leads who seem exquisitely sensitive to each other's presence. The wind up is wonderfully satisfying. I still can't believe that goremeister (ph) Park Chan-wook has made the year's most irresistible love story.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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DAVIES: On Monday's show, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan tells us about helping patients who are close to death.

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KERRY EGAN: People who are dying, of course, are still living. And if you think about how different every single person who's living you know is, well, people are just as different in the dying process.

DAVIES: Her new memoir is "On Living." Hope you can join us. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.