A conman like you knows what love is?

It is the fool who thinks he cannot be fooled

Joey Skaggs

Title
Agassi (2016)
Also known as
 The Handmaiden
Genre
Romance, Thriller 
Written by
Park Chan-wook   & Chung Seo-kyung
Directed by
Country of Origin
 South Korea
Running time
 145 minutes 

oh! … brief

A con man using the alias “Count Fujiwara” employs the services of a pickpocket called Sook-hee to help him in his latest con, stealing the wealth of a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko. Sook-hee using the name Tamako enters the employment of Lady Hideko, but as the two spend time together a camaraderie and attraction between the two grow. This friendship and attraction to each other changes everything, in particular, the con man’s desired outcome.

oh! … talks film

I try to read as little as possible about a film or drama series I’m about to watch before I actually watch it. I want my impression to be untainted. And so like with every other drama series and film, I managed to stay away from getting too much information beforehand for The Handmaiden. As a result, I was totally not expecting the production to be what it was – it caught me off-guard.

Having written that, I’m a firm believer that the former days of ‘eroticism’ in the film were far more tasteful than some of the new films where sex borders on obscene pornography painted and costumed to appeal to a certain type of audience. The Handmaiden takes us back to an era in the film where erotica and clandestine affairs were considered naughty and films of the time were more refined erotic teasers than garish displays of sexual intercourse. I think I like this aspect the most of The Handmaiden because it’s almost tongue-in-cheek and a middle finger-salute to the cocksure features coming out of Hollywood.

I also was not expecting this film to delve into 1930’s colonial Korea and Japan, but loosely adapting the screenplay from the Victorian-era novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walters, it made the most sense. I most certainly didn’t expect to see a film about lesbian attraction and behaviour to come out of rather conservative South Korea and I wasn’t expecting such an honest depiction of erotica of the times to be produced by a South Korean auteur.

But I loved it!

And anyone that favours art house cinematography will also love this body of work!

It’s no surprise at all that this film was developed and delivered by Park Chan-wook, a master of the genre’s, whether they are thrillers like Oldboy or Stoker, a documentary like Bitter Sweet Seoul, fantasy like Night Fishing, horror like Thirst or Three Extremes, romance like The Moon Is The Sun’s Dream, war-themed like Joint Security Area, or even comedy like I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay, he has mastered them all, whether through his writing or directing. Park Chan-wook is known for his visual creativity and excessive violence and I’m glad to see that this is toned down for The Handmaiden, perhaps his most restrained body of work to date!

To say that director/writer Park Chan-wook and co-author of the screenplay Chung Seo-kyung crafted a daedal tale of the con, failed con, and counter-con artistry would not be an understatement! It’s no surprise that this complex tale also incorporates the escape from ‘imprisonment’ of two females (Lady Hideko, a bird in a gilded cage and ‘Tamako’ an impoverished thief), who throw caution to the wind in their haste to flee from the bastardly men of their lives.

If I were less cautious in my review I’d state it’s almost a rite of passage, a coming of age, but I’m a little more cautious this time around as I’m not certain if this was Park Chan-wook’s intent, so I’ll stick with what I’ve already shared.

The original novel of which the screenplay is based was written as a triptych (a set of three artistic, literary, or musical works associated to each other and intended to be appreciated together) and Park Chan-wook screenplay follows the same style.

The narrative of the first section of the film dedicated to Nam Sook-hee’s recollection of events narrated by Kim Tae-ri in the role of that character. The second section of the film is dedicated to Lady Hideko’s recounting of the events and is narrated by Kim Min-hee in her role as Lady Hideko. The last section of the film focuses on ‘Count Fujiwara’s” plight and is filled with revelations and role reversals.

Park Chan-wook’s writing includes masterful choreography of the cat-and-mouse chase common in drama and film where con artistry is central to the theme. For the more conservative viewers, I must highlight the fact that Park Chan-wook’s screenplay includes only three sex scenes that must be paid attention to because every breath was drawn, every muscle spasm or shuddering body paints the tale of changing relationships. True to Park Chan-wook style, the sexiest sex scene is between the two female characters, lady and maid, remedying a dental issue. Park Chan-wook penned this intensely erotic scene that can only be interpreted as titillating in all its glorious sensuality. But the scene’s narrative never crosses the line from the sexual suggestion, not at that point anyway.

And while Park Chan-wook used quite explicit dialogue he also highlighted the aesthetics of pleasure and allows each of the individual characters their moment in the limelight. The ravishing of senses is not for the audience alone, the distractions also cause the characters to miss the sleight of hand as the con changes again, and again. It is a beautifully written screenplay to be certain, but Park Chan-wook’s dual role as writer/director is what really brings the production full circle.

What you might miss when you first watch this production is the meaning behind some of the visual imagery. For example Park Chan-wook, as with many of his other films and productions, displays for enjoyment the prettier side of life, in this production those pretty things translate into the beautiful hats, gloves, corsets, accessories and even the beautifully painted lips of Lady Hideko. Meanwhile, he alludes to the nastier, seedier side of life, contrasting the beauty versus the ugly, in this production what lies in the basement and Uncle Kouzuki`s pornographic book collection, not to mention the whole pose of Lady Hideko atop a trapeze with a male mannequin. I believe this was a reflection if you like, a mirror-image of what it meant for Korea to be under Japanese rule in the 1930`s. The beauty of the country contrasted with the politics of the time. That`s my interpretation at least.

The men in this production are not painted in good light at all. You have Uncle Kouzaki, who wants to marry Hideko himself, but has raised her to recite pornographic texts so he can sell his Sadean materials and keeps her locked up and well-guarded. He is a disturbed man and obsessed with his niece and literature of a pornographic nature. Then you have Count Fujiwara a fascinating man who exudes charm and elegance, but beneath the surface is a manipulating aggressive malignant con artist and nothing else. Whenever I think of him, I`m reminded of a snake, and not surprisingly the snake appears in the visuals of this production.

Under the careful guidance of Park Chan-wook as the director, cinematographer Chung-hoon’s widescreen framing of many scenes heightens the aesthetics, in particular, Ryu Seong-hee`s design of the interior of the Hideko mansion. Ryu Seong-hee used a hybrid British-Japanese style, combining the decorative luxuriance of the English with the elegant symmetry of the Japanese. It was stunning and typical of Park Chan-wook`s aesthetic maximalism. To say that the production values were sensational would be an understatement. Attention to detail and a flair for design and costumery, Park Chan-wook hit the ball out the park. His visual trappings were astounding – the opulent brocades, the silky robes, the luscious peaches, the mansion grounds with the carpet of green, the wood panelling, the floral wallpapers, the creamy shoulders and perfectly paintd lips – all of these visuals just added layers to the production and raised the bar. All of the visual feasts was further amplified by Cho Young-wuk`s accompanying score, which snaked its way through all the lewd action and swooped to caress the tender moments.

The success of this film lies in the amazing screenplay, the fantastic camera work and attention to visual details, along with a haunting soundtrack, but, perhaps the ties that bound the production together into the masterpiece it became are the performances of the cast.

The beautiful Kim Min-hee played Lady Izumi Hideko with poise and grace fitting of the era. The doe-eyed innocent interpretation was fitting and Kim Min-hee delivered a mesmerizing performance. She painted a petulant and entitled young woman who while reciting lewd texts cannot in truth feign innocence. I imagine the role was quite a balancing act but Kim Min-hee accomplished all aspects soundly.

Sook-hee or Tamako was played by relative newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Her role as the maid in this film has helped her win at least eight awards. In her role as the handmaiden, Kim Tae-ri`s character is far from innocent, she is street-smart, worldly and very talented with deception and plays acting. I found the performance understated, I`d have liked to see a little more fire in Tamako, and certainly later on a lot more rage at the deception, but, saying that I really enjoyed her performance and I look forward to watching her future productions.

Ha Jung-woo has so many awards to his name it was no surprise that this film appealed to him and I think he fits the Count Fujiwara character completely! What a performance! I`m a long-time admirer and fan of his body of work which includes at least 40 films (some of which I will be watching and reviewing in the future) as well as some television productions and theatre. As Count Fujiwara, Ha Jung-woo inhabited his character and delivered the phoney aristocratic gentleman while hiding the con artist relatively well. I just loved how Ha Jung-woo swaggered his way through this production and his sneers and facial expressions, including the eyes, were perfect!

oh! … sidekicks

Uncle Kouzuki was played by Cho Jin-woong and if this character doesn`t give you the creeps or the heebie jeebies then you’re one tough nut. That tongue of his, purpled by the ink! Though the role was really only a supporting one, Cho Jin-woong did a fine job as the perverted Uncle who has a sinister desire for his much younger niece, beyond marriage and the obvious inheritance. I didn`t recognize Cho Jin-woong, he was well disguised and used this anonymity to bring to life this vile, repugnant character that imprisoned his niece. Cho Jin-woong carried the role well, dishevelled and creepy both in tone and body language.

Making an appearance is none other than Yong-nyeo Lee as Bok-soon, related to Sook-hee. I so enjoy Yong-nyeo Lee’s performances and while it was very short for this production, she still did a good job!

oh! … that’s a wrap

This film will not appeal to anyone with sensitive sensibilities. The film is literally an ode to eroticism in the manner of classic Victorian erotica the type of which appealed to elevated classes of society in which rare erotic literature and art was appreciated behind closed doors and curtained windows. The film was also a bona fide interpretation of the novel it is based on – subversive sexuality.

I enjoyed the film. I found it visually stimulating and an interesting take on the artistry of a con. I`m not certain I would watch this again, however, and I don`t know that I`d add it to my collection either. Not because it isn`t good enough, but, instead, because the subject matter itself is of little interest to me.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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