Secret Cinema X: The Handmaiden
As the credits slowly appear to close out Park Chan-wook's erotically charged thriller, the Shoji screens slide open below for one last reveal. A warm orange glow illuminates two women entwined in the throes of passion, the sight of their naked bodies throwing out one last surprise to an audience still trying to process the events of the evening. The Handmaiden was certainly a bold, left-field choice from the organisers of Secret Cinema X. For keen followers of world cinema, a new film by Park is an event in itself. For those not used to such a lengthy run-time, amatory content and at times, rapid-fire subtitles, it was a night unlike any other.
A black tie dress code dictates that everyone arrive dressed to the nines. Bow-ties and evening gowns, tuxedos and elegant dresses swamped the streets of East London during the early evening hours. As is the norm, the identity of the film is shrouded in secrecy, with only a trail of mysterious images and poetical breadcrumbs provided by the organisers beforehand. The Master of the House instructs visitors to remain silent throughout the evening, with a notepad and pencil the only form of communication permitted.
On this occasion the venue was Troxy, a beautifully renovated Art Deco building that was once the UK’s largest cinema, now used to hold a whole range of media events. The location couldn’t have been more fitting given the 1930s setting of Park’s story and its use of Western Art Deco design resting uneasily alongside traditional Eastern furnishings. As you carefully descend into the bowels of the building, a haunting soundscape permeates the air. Paper lanterns decorate the dimly lit stairs, as attendees are guided along the way. The journey is a short one, and it is not too long before you step inside the expanse of the main room, where people are silently led to their seats by Korean maids dressed in plain kimonos. With such a large crowd gathered together on a Friday night in London, the absence of conversation feels eerily surreal.
An expansive Shoji screen runs across the length of the stage, resting underneath the main cinema screen at the front of the hall. On the far left, a pianist strikes the keys with ferocious intensity, while to her right, sections of the film are dramatically performed by actors in costume. You are free to walk around and take in the stunning design of the venue, which is split into three sections; the expansive upstairs Gallery, the ground level Salon, and the Library area lower down, directly in front of the stage. Bento boxes or Japanese macaroons can be purchased at one end and drinks at the other. Silence must be preserved at all times, but nothing – not even an inability to speak– gets in the way of the Great British Public and their booze.
As the actors leave the stage, a violin player arrives to assist the pianist in shaping a calmer mood. While the change in ambience is a welcome one, it certainly feels no less bizarre. The Master finally breaks the thick silence by addressing the crowded room, encouraging them to explore their inner desires by seeking out a stranger and handing them the letter of devotion they were asked to prepare before arrival. An uncomfortable shuffle of noise begins to ripple across the room, with many unsure how to hand over a message of love to a man or woman standing next to their own partner. It would be fair to say that many returned home that night still accompanied by letters of unrequited emotion.
The film begins at 8pm, which given the 145 minute theatrical run-time (a 168 minute directors cut is also being shown in selected cinemas) allows for those who have to travel a little further to return home. As the lights fade out, the audience is slowly immersed inside Park’s enigmatic tale of love, control and desire. The story follows Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) a conman attempting to seduce and defraud Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), aided by Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) a homeless pickpocket posing as her new handmaiden. Structured inside three chapters, it cleverly subverts expectation with a plot designed to be as conniving as the characters themselves. The Count, the Crook, His Wife & Her Lover would have served just as aptly as the title.
Discussing anymore of the story would reveal too much, as Park continues to pull the rug from under your feet, twisting and turning across the second and third acts. The three chapters are key, not only, for the mechanics of the plot, but also to serve as a narrative representation of the three levels within the house, each one containing their own forbidden secrets. Meanwhile, underneath the screen, vignettes are performed in silhouette behind the Shoji doors by the Secret Cinema cast, at times breaking out onto the stage, before disappearing into the audience. At one point, with the onscreen sexual tension reaching breaking point, a welcome moment of levity changes the mood. Lying in bed, with her eyes fixed intently on her lover, Lady Hideko asks “What is it that men want?” At that exact moment, a bottle of Prosecco is uncorked loudly somewhere deep within the room, allowing the audience to laugh out their nerves in unison.
Once the naked women disappear from view, the code of silence is finally lifted as the film reaches its end. The Master appears front of stage offering his thanks, allowing the buzz of conversation to finally arrive inside the room. No one is quite sure if they are now permitted to speak, such has been the respect shown by everyone towards the house rules. The library area is cleared to make way for a dance floor, where the DJ leads the way with music from the 30s through to the 60s. After a while, the dancing couples dwindle in number as the songs play on, the house guests disappearing into the cool night-time air, enchanted by the evening’s events.