Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Secret Cinema X event 2017 – What is it?

Note: Super sleuth Oliver Morris can have most of the credit for this article!

This morning all previous attendees of any Secret Cinema events were unexpectedly sent an email providing limited details on their next fully secret event.

Launching on Sunday 9th April and running until Friday 14th April, the email promised that they would be “presenting a yet unreleased secret film in a secret location”.

“Exploring vivid, enigmatic landscapes ripe with intrigue and coded messages, you will become part of a world that blossoms like a delicate flower to reveal a clandestine, unforgettable experience”.

The tickets for the event go on sale tomorrow (Wednesday 22nd March) at 13:00 (GMT).

You may be intrigued by the idea, but if you want to know the likely films that it could be, read on.

The facts

The email states that the event is strictly for people over the age of 18, which indicates that the film has been rated with an 18 certificate by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification).

We can also deduce that the film is probably going to be released in a short window between late April and the end of June. The film must be ready for viewing by the general public and it wouldn’t benefit from the extra press this will generate if its release date is too far in the future.

There is also a lot of allusions to plant life, flowers, growth and blossoming, which indicates that this is a strong theme in the film.

The quote “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming” is a quote from Pablo Neruda and is possibly a red herring, but could be a clue to the film’s country of origin. My hunch is the former.

The final clue provided in the email is the visual title, which features a sketched eye pouring into a waterfall, set amidst a backdrop of a Japanese-style sun that is reminiscent of their flag. It looks Dali-esque, but is certainly very much something that makes the viewers think of the country Japan.

So what films could it be?

This leaves not many option for films. Here are the best guesses.

The Handmaiden


Park Chan-wook’s latest film is an erotic mystery horror that lit up the end-of-year lists for many of the in-the-know critics last year. It is based on the Sarah Waters book Fingersmith, but is set in South Korea under Japanese colonial rule rather than Victorian Britain. The story revolves around a young woman who has been raised as a thief and working as a handmaiden undercover in a rich heiress’s house.

This might seem like quite a leftfield choice for Secret Cinema to tackle, but it certainly fits the bill. It’s essentially set in Japan and has already received a BBFC classification of 18.

It is set for general release on 14th April, which is the day the Secret Cinema run finishes.

Park Chan-wook’s previous work includes two films from 2013 – Stoker and Snowpiercer – along with 2009’s Thirst and 2003’s Oldboy. His films are certainly beautiful works of art and their quality belies the fact his wider work is largely unknown in the west. But perhaps that is the perfect reason for Secret Cinema to base a whole event around his new release.

Alien: Covenant

The only other feasible alternative to The Handmaiden in my eyes is Alien: Covenant. Set for release in May 2017, the film concerns a new crew visiting an uncharted planet that looks on arrival to be full of blooming flowers and plantlife – initially appearing to be a paradise planet.

It is a direct sequel to Prometheus, which itself was subject to a Secret Cinema event in June 2012 immediately prior to its release.

This sequel is set for general release on 19th May 2017, which would put it in the frame for being tackled.

It is probably going to receive a 15 rating (the trailers were rated 15), but that doesn’t mean the night can be so horrifically planned that they don’t want to admit people younger than 18. Plus there will probably be alcohol for sale, which would also need an age restriction.

Certainly the spending power of 20th Century Fox would lend itself to a last-minute decision to be subject to a huge Secret Cinema event, with increased cost as a result of running it in parallel with the Moulin Rouge event across London. Would the Secret Cinema team put so much pressue on themselves to run two concurrently unless they were set to make a lot of money on the back of it?

Conclusion

Honestly, it could be either of the above. Or neither. The beauty is in the guessing and the not knowing.

Either way, the nights will be a wonderful treat for fans of cinema and well worth the money.

Act fast tomorrow at 13:00 to avoid disappointment.

Note: This article proved to be spot on (2 for 2!). Check out the follow-up here and a quick haiku review here.