a review by the Crow.
Official Trailer for The Handmaiden
I only watched Agassi (which transliterates to “The Lady”) very recently, after so much waiting. Over time, you lovely readers will notice that I consider Park Chan-wook to be one of our generation’s finest directors (one of my top 3 favourites, as a matter of fact). But make no mistake, that doesn’t mean for a second that it means I’ll show any bias. I’ll be as harsh as I usually am. It’s up to the movie to knock my socks off. Expectations usually lead to disappointment; and so, I’d rather be blank when walking into a movie.
Anyway, what the hell is Agassi, anyway? It’s a movie based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 thriller novel Fingersmith. I find it at once appropriate and inappropriate to say that Agassi could be taken to be a loose adaptation. Just like with all adaptations, the movie changes details here and there. The most obvious change is that instead of the story taking place in Victorian England, it’s set in Korea during the time of the Japanese rule.
The second major change – which is more relevant to this review – is that while Agassi retains the three-part structure of Fingersmith, part three of Agassi is vastly different from the novel. It’s all for the better, however, as leaving it intact would’ve harmed the movie, and made it run far longer than its 145-minute runtime.
So, has Park Chan-wook managed to keep his impeccable mastery over cinema iron-tight? Or has he finally gone and slipped up? Let’s take a closer look.
THE STORIES WE’RE READ
WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS [SOME] SPOILERS
Agassi opens with Sook-hee being taken from her home and being introduced to the house of one Mr Kouzuki – a Korean man who has had himself naturalised into Japanese citizenry, and one who’s obsessed with Japan and England (for all intents and purposes: a traitor). The house is large and eerie, and the madame of the house – Lady Sasaki – is a cold bitch to Sook-hee (oh, sorry; Tamako is her name, now) right from the get go.
Tamako’s duties start almost immediately as she, after being shown to her small sleeping area (is there a better name for such an installation that I could use?), is summoned by her hysterical mistress in the middle of the night. Lady Hideko (her mistress, or ‘Lady’) tells Tamako of her late Aunt, who had hung herself from a tree out on the grounds, and whose spirit sometimes appears in the night.
Over the following weeks, we see Lady Hideko and Tamako bond quickly, and almost instantly, a strong sexual tension builds between the two. But, the movie spares no time in telling us that Sook-hee is no maid with good references. She is, rather, a pickpocket – the daughter of a legendary thief who belongs to a “family” of criminals.
At the onset, she was approached by one “Count” Fujiwara, another criminal/conman who has weaselled his way into the higher echelons of society. He has a plan to defraud the young Lady Hideko of her fortune (upon which her keeper Kouzuki has his sights) by seducing her and escaping to Japan. However, his plan involves having a plant within the family to help him pull off his plan. And therefore: enter Sook-hee.
One thing I’d like to point out at this stage is: Agassi, unlike other movies of its type doesn’t hide its secrets as much. Instead, the movie plays with time and pacing to pepper truths around. It’s a really clever show of script-writing that the movie has on display.
The Count arrives soon, and the plan is set into motion, but there is one slight problem. The bond between Tamako and Lady Hideko evolves into a sexual relationship quickly. And in time, as the Count starts making crass advances towards Lady Hideko – despite his charming and calculated exterior, Tamako finds herself forming romantic connections with Lady Hideko. And vice-versa.
However, there’s much more going on in the plot than just the scam. We take a closer look into Lady Hideko’s life, and to a certain degree, Sook-hee’s. Lady Hideko, like her aunt before her, holds book readings for her uncle’s friends. Kouzuki had abandoned his Korean wife (later revealed to be the cold Madame Sasaki) to marry into a Japanese family. And once his wife died, he had his sights set on his young niece, who he has – in effect – been grooming.
Uncle Kouzuki’s love is for books, but not just any books. The readings, as we’re told in time, through Hideko’s eyes, are performances of what I’m just going to call “Sade-like pornography”. It’s all pretty grotesque; but once again, the movie pulls no punches. He collects these books, replicates them, has Hideko read them out to his salacious friends, and then auctions off the knock-offs for high prices.
These Gothic aspects of the story run throughout the movie’s course, intertwined through the larger narrative. And then, there’s Sook-hee. As Tamako, she is falling in love with the woman who she’s here to defraud, but as Sook-hee, she has one goal in mind, as she reminds us, and herself: money, and hopes of eating foods she barely recognises (and who can blame her for that wish?).
So, what of Hideko?
The movie manages to truly make Hideko a figure of pity. This woman’s life really cannot get much worse, to be honest. For those who’ve read Fingersmith, or otherwise know what happens to her at the end of Part One (such as this crow), the reveal is satisfying from an adaptation’s point of view. It doesn’t deal with it as some big “ohhh!” moment, but pulls the moment off with careful respect to the source material.
As a matter of fact, even to those who don’t know. The movie tells you exactly what’ll become of her. Like I said. The movie doesn’t hide its secrets much.
But then, Part Two begins. And that’s when you begin to try your hand at the art of un-learning.
The plot, as I’ve said before, is excellently tinkered with to craft a whole new product. But while the whole plot is a fine piece of art, I’d like to talk about a few moments in particular:
Every scene to do with the basement is handled excellently. This is the only aspect of the movie which keeps you continually guessing. And when you do see it, it’s quite a sight (the brief glimpse of the octopus, given the rest of the things shown in the movie, is a moment of pure terror). It’s a sort-of collection of all the evils in the movie, barring one.
The only thing missing in the basement when we finally see it are books. By the point we go into the basement proper, Uncle Kouzuki’s beloved collection has been torn apart, inked-over, dumped into water, stomped on, and generally destroyed. Now, scenes of violence done to books really, really, really pisses me off. But in Agassi, I found myself cheering on Sook-hee – and eventually Hideko – as they ran rampant through Kouzuki’s library.
The most prominent thought in my mind over the course of the movie was that while the movie is many things at once; ultimately, it’s a movie about women liberating themselves from the darker aspects of masculinity. And what setting to better explore that than in colonial Korea, with Japan’s shadow looming over it, and the fog of Britain surrounding both cultures from across the seas?
However, unlike this year’s Ghostbusters reboot (I really don’t want to put both these movies into the same sentence – yuck!), the movie manages to steer clear of what was Ghostbusters‘ fatal flaw: misandry. Unlike in Ghostbusters, where every man was either an idiot, a dickhead, or a loser without exception, Agassi concentrates on the darker side of masculinity in a more grounded sense. I must admit, that at the very end, I felt a little sorry for Count Fujiwara. While a conman and a scoundrel, his only real crime (screwing Kouzuki over doesn’t count, in my mind) is a lack of sympathy at one point, and his cruel punishment is delivered by a man infinitely worse than him.
I’m glad he had that last cigarette, though.
Solid storytelling, all round. This plot is very tightly woven.
THE FLAME THE HAND DRAWS AWAY FROM
Is there any question that Park Chan-wook has been making progressively better-looking films? The guy and his team showed off a stunning mastery over art direction and production quality in Stoker, and things have only gotten better.
It’s easy to say that Agassi is too lavish, but I don’t really think it is. The movie is peppered with clever uses of light, framing, and set direction. The art direction and cinematography are solid 10/10s, and the music is on par (familiar themes kept springing to mind).
I realised I wouldn’t be disappointed with the craft right at the beginning when the camera swivels past a wall-mounted painting, and the play of light transforms the painting from something pretty into something grotesque. There are many moments of such nature in the movie, but that one just might’ve been my favourite.
The performances match the movie’s design excellently. My pick of the lead cast is easily Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee), who knocks it out of the park in every scene she’s in (it’s hard to say the others don’t, to be fair). Her funny little giggle/laugh had me laughing my bum off the first time, and even the time after that. It doesn’t lose its effect one bit.
Around the end (Part Three), I found things maybe a touch too rushed. But that had nothing to do with the age-old “oh, they left it for the expanded edition” excuse.
This is Park Chan-wook, and this is not Hollywood. Masters of their craft know what goes in and what stays out. I can’t quite pin down why I felt it was rushed, either, to be honest.
Does it detract from the movie? No. No it doesn’t.
I now want Park Chan-wook to tackle terror, full-on. No, not horror. Terror. (Of course, it’s evident I have yet to watch Thirst).
aanother script worthy of his touch out there, somewhere. I’d be first in line for certain.
MASTERS, LADIES, SCOUNDRELS, AND PICKPOCKETS
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD! Click here to skip to the next section.
LADY HIDEKO/AGASSI (Kim Min-hee)
Ah, Lady Hideko.
She’s a femme fatale in hiding, this one. But she’s new to it all. While she’s long been harbouring revenge (after a fashion), she needs to learn the game as she plays. And she’s a quick study.
Her own plans, once Sook-hee arrives and the two fall in love, evolve almost with a bit of desperation. Together, however, they form a great team. And once the desperation is done away with, they work out a plan of even larger proportions. An excellent character, without question.
SOOK-HEE/TAMAKO (Kim Tae-ri)
Sook-hee was meant to be dense. She was meant to be easy prey.
The woman is sharp as a Michelin-guide chef’s knife. Yes, she’s a bit dull at the very beginning, and ultimately Lady Hideko manages to even surpass her by a small margin, but she plays to her strengths, for she is the intended victim – as it turns out, and she plays the game as she’s meant to. Honestly, she’d be a great handmaiden, if one treated her right. This crow finds that funny.
COUNT FUJIWARA (Ha Jung-woo)
Oh, you fucking idiot.
See, this role would be mine, if I were involved in a plot of such fashion. And he screws up so very much. His first mistake comes from underestimating Sook-hee so, but that could still be worked around. He fails to pick up on things almost continually, even though they happen right in front of him.
It’s obvious that he’s blinded by his admiration for Lady Hideko – and maybe even truly in love with her. Until right at the end, he shows none of the sexual menace of the other men in the movie. However, Hideko does in a way build things up to that point, so this little factor will have to be up in the air until I’ve had another chance to watch the movie. He should have known better, though, given how Hideko had dealt with his advances leading up to that point. (And what scenes they are!)
As I said before, though: I have some sympathy for the character because of where he ends up, and his crimes preceding it. A smarter man would’ve been wiser as to the risks involved with these two women.
However, in the end, right before he has his smoke break, Fujiwara has a moment of redemption for his character. I’m pleased that he at least has that (and that other thing).
UNCLE KOUZUKI (Cho Jing-woong)
What an absolute waste of a human being.
I’m actually not going to go on for too long about this black-tongued fucker. He is the prototypical Gothic villain. A rapey uncle, salivating over his niece, grooming her and having her read pornography to his “friends”. He does have retribution upon him by the end, but the weight of his crimes do not match up with his eventual punishment, unlike Fujiwara.
…It’s all a cruel joke in the end, anyway.
Agassi is a wonderfully executed film, and is right up there with the best movies of the year, and possibly one of the greats of all time. Strangely enough, 2016’s actually been a pretty good year for movies, even though I’d felt it was going to be an absolutely dry year.
Park Chan-wook’s still going strong, and it’s worth all your time to follow up on what the man’s got lined up for the future. And if you haven’t watched his prior work, go and watch some of his movies.
Also: am I the only one who finds the change in the title between the Korean and English versions interesting?
This crow’s going to give this movie another watch as soon as he can, and perhaps will add on to this review when he does, but until then, he’ll leave you with this pretty poster:
THE CROW: 9/10
THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: 10/10
- Oldboy analysis [1/2], by the Crow
- Thirst, by the Crow
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