Film Notes: The Handmaiden (2016) [Original title: Ah-ga-ssi] directed by Park Chan-wook

KR / 145 min / Color / Amazon Studios, Magnolia Pictures, CJ Entertainment, Moho Film & Yong Film. Dir: Park Chan-wook. Pro: Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim. Scr: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from the Victorian era to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Cine: Chung Chung-hoon. Mus: Cho Young-wuk. Cast: Kim Min-hee (Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee), Ha Jung-woo (Count Fujiwara), Cho Jin-woong (Uncle Kouzuki), Kim Hae-sook (Butler madame Sasaki), Moon So-ri (Hideko’s aunt). Synopsis: 1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.. (Source: Presskit). Release Dates: 14 May 2016 (Cannes); 1 June 2016 (South Korea); 2 December  2016 (Spain)  Original title: Ah-ga-ssi (lit. Lady) Spanish title: La doncella IMDb Rating: 8.1. The Handmaiden was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

THE HANDMAIDEN, (aka AH-GA-SSI), US poster, from top left: JO Jin-woong, KIM Tae-ri, KIM Min-hee, HA Jung-woo, 2016. ©Magnolia Pictures/courtesy Everett CollectionYesterday Begoña and I had the chance to go and see The Handmaiden, a film I was very interested in. And I have to admit that I was not disappointed in the slightest. Superbly crafted, it is a great film in all respects. If anything, it has an excessive duration and, in my view, it has some some superluous minutes and scenes, particularly towards the end.

Expectations are fully met in Park Chan-wook’s exquisitely filmed The Handmaiden (Agassi), an amusingly kinky erotic thriller and love story that brims with delicious surprises, making its two-and-a-half hours fly by. Though spiced up with nudity and verbal perversions for adult audiences, it never descends into the cheap and tawdry, and violence, considering this is from the cult director of Oldboy, remains surprisingly offscreen.  (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)


A crook-turned-servant falls for the vulnerable heiress she had originally schemed to swindle, in this audacious, visually sumptuous, and highly erotic period piece from acclaimed writer-director Park Chan-wook.

With The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook transplants Sarah Waters’ Victorian England-set bestseller Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. The result is a historical drama, an erotically charged thriller, and, above all, a magnificent romance. Under Park’s sophisticated direction, Waters’ tale, about a pickpocket-turned-servant and the heiress she conspires to swindle, provides the basis for something beautiful and brash.

Park utilizes the novel’s three-part structure to tell the story from three distinct perspectives: those of Japanese aristocrat Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Korean thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), and pseudonymous grifter Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Hideko lives isolated in the luxurious colonial manor built by her tyrannical and depraved uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a book collector who forces Hideko to read erotic stories for his lecherous old friends. Into this bizarre yet static daily routine enters new handmaiden Sookee, who is in on the purported Count Fujiwara’s scheme to marry Hideko and seize her inheritance.

But, soon enough, Sookee will experience a profound change of heart as she becomes far less interested in Fujiwara’s scheme than she is in her vulnerable, repressed mistress. Growing increasingly intimate as they share Hideko’s ornate wardrobe, her jewellery, and her bathtub, the two women edge toward an abyss of love that is as pure as it is passionately sexual. Lusty, role-switching games between lady and servant are interrupted along the way by morbid revelations, double-crossings, grave threats, and torture.

With his brilliant mise en scène, Park plays with taboos, genres, and styles to create not only a provocative film, but also a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the mind, and the heart. (Giovanna Fulvi) Source: Toronto International Film Festival TIFF.

About the filmmaker: Park Chan-wook was born in Seoul on 23 August, 1963. He studied philosophy at Sogang University and later worked as a film critic while pursuing a career as a writer-director. His works include The Moon Is…the Sun’s Dream (92), Trio (97), Joint Security Area (00), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (02), Oldboy (03), Lady Vengeance (05), I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (06), Thirst (09), Stoker (13), and The Handmaiden (16).

Q&A With Park Chan-wook

Tell us about how you chose this project as your next film.

It was the same as what happened with Oldboy. Producer Syd Lim came across the source material first, showed it to me and asked, “What do you think?” I’m sure it was the same with other readers, but when I read the novel, the end of Part One caught be completely by surprise, but not only that, I fell in love with the author’s very detailed and vivid writing. More than anything, I chose this story because the two women at the center of the story felt so alive. One is a person with a dark past, and one is a person living in a desperate present, but both exude a very strong sense of individuality and charm.

Why did you decide to move the setting from Victorian England to the Colonial Era of the 1930s, as opposed to another time in Korean history?

There were practical reasons. When thinking about such plot elements as a society where there’s still the separate class of the nobility, where the occupation of the handmaiden exists, where there’s a character who collects rare items, etc., it seemed the only reasonable option. That was an era in which some traditional elements remained, but modernity was just beginning to take hold.

All of your previous films have featured striking production design, but The Handmaiden in particular is outstanding in this regard. Can you explain your intention and concept in terms of the art direction?

The house is an important space. Kim Hae-sook says in the beginning, “Not even in Japan can you find a home that combines Western and Japanese styles. It reflects Master Kouzuki’s admiration for Japan and England.” So when characters enter the Japanese-style quarters they must take their shoes off, and when they walk through the Western-style wing they must put them back on again. The personality of the home is an important element. Hideko’s room is located in a Western-style wing, so she sleeps in a bed and lives the life of a Western lady. In contrast, the maid’s room next door is in the Japanese style, where Sookee lives in an ‘oshiire’ a kind of a closet for storing bedclothes.

The most important space in terms of production design is the library. The exterior is traditional Japanese architecture, and inside there is a Western-style library. Inside the library there is also a section with tatami mats, which during readings get made up like a Japanese garden with white pebbles, stones and water. Japanese gardens are meant to reproduce the world in miniature — mountains and rivers, lakes and forests — so Kouzuki’s act of moving it inside is akin to creating a new world inside his own kingdom.

Let me ask about the camera movement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film in which the camera moves through space like it does in The Handmaiden.

The house in this film is large, and there are only a few characters in this big, empty space. In addition, there are multiple scenes which we see from Sookee’s perspective in Part One, and then from Hideko’s perspective in Part Two. Throughout this, there is a sort of “game of glances” in which someone is looking at someone else, or ignoring someone, or suspecting another’s gaze. There were times when this dynamic was best expressed in close-ups, and other times when the moving camera was more effective.

Actually, at the beginning I planned to shoot this film in 3D. Usually it’s science fiction or action films that use 3D, but I thought using it for this kind of quiet drama would be interesting. The 3D would have emphasized the perspective of each character in a more pronounced way. In the end we couldn’t make it work financially, but I think the camera movement functions as a kind of replacement for the effect I wanted.

Can you tell us about your decision to use an anamorphic lens? I heard the production designer had to make the set wider to accommodate the lens.

Before shooting I spent a lot of time discussing the anamorphic lens with the cinematographer. It’s one of the luxuries we could accommodate while shooting with a digital camera. I still feel that film is superior to digital, and if I could have my choice, I’d prefer to shoot on film. But one of the things we could do while shooting on digital was to afford the use of an anamorphic lens. I have a special affection for films shot with old anamorphic lenses, plus my cinematographer had an interest in combining an old-style lens with a new digital camera. The look that it creates is quite unique, and it seemed appropriate to the period setting of the film.

Before shooting, you gave music CDs to the cast and crew. What was your intention with that?

It wasn’t that I planned to use the music in the film, but rather I wanted the actors and crew to be able to feel what the atmosphere of the completed film would be like as they made their preparations. There are the drawings in the storyboard, but since music is also effective in creating a mood, I prepared three CDs worth of music and gave it to them.

Tell us about the process of casting Kim Tae-ri.

I definitely wanted to use a new, unknown actress, so we prepared a large-scale audition. I met a lot of great young actresses with potential, after which process it became clear to us that Kim Tae-ri was our Sookee. She has a unique look about her, and when she speaks, she has real backbone. I had a very similar feeling when I first met Gang Hye-jung [the actress in OLDBOY]. She is a person who expresses her own strong point of view.

I’m curious if there were times on the set with actor Ha Jung-woo when, without any specific instruction, he produced some unexpected expression or gesture that impressed you.

In my films, what I want is always quite particular. I’m not the kind of director to just hand an actor the script and say, “You figure it out.” Compared to some other directors, I give actors a very narrow space to work in, but there are times when very talented actors express themselves within that narrow space so well that it really surprises me. That’s the kind of acting I hope for, and with Ha Jung-woo there were quite a few times that happened.

In a previous interview you commented that the films of yours that contained humor have all done well. What about for The Handmaiden?

The humor in this film comes from the fact that the characters are hiding their true identities and acting. There are many scenes where they’re hiding their feelings, and thinking something different from what they’re saying. Even if the audience doesn’t burst out laughing in the theater, I think viewers will be able to enjoy this sort of humor throughout the film.

How would you describe The Handmaiden , in a few words?

It’s a thriller movie, a story about swindlers, a dramatic story with several unexpected twists, and more than anything else, a romance.

(Source: Presskit)

Official website

Film review at The Hollywood Reporter

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