Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo
Running time: 145 minutes
Inspired by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ 2002 book Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a brilliantly witty, twisty con-thriller that completely shakes up predictability and convention, and – like another one of Park’s cinematic successes, Oldboy – brings South Korean cinema back to the fore.
Given a 1930’s Korean make-over from its loose source material Victorian Britain setting, The Handmaiden follows young orphaned pickpocket Sookee (Tae-ri) who is enlisted by a con-artist posing as a Count (Jung-woo) to help him bring down wealthy Japanese heiress Hideko (Min-hee). As romance begins to blossom however, who’s really conning whom?
Just like Hideko’s extravagant wardrobe, The Handmaiden is a lavish, textured, and ever changing work of cinematic artistry. Park’s film is a period piece that slowly and elegantly sheds itself of any trace of the predictability and linearity one might expect to find. This is a film about love and liberation that takes the scenic route, with no Sat-Nav or road markings. The Handmaiden quickly constructs itself as a film that is, well, many things in one: a romantic love story, an eloquently paced thriller, a commentary on gender and sexuality. Its three central leads inhabit many different characters in their own bodies, with Park astutely showing, teasing and hiding their different forms at different times throughout the film’s 2 ½ hour run time. Yes, in a film about con-artists and pickpockets, it would be naïve not to expect the odd twist here and there, but The Handmaiden succeeds so often in giving us that narrative sucker punch just when we think we have everything, and everyone, completely sussed out. Even the sex scenes – the times when everything is seemingly on show – have much deeper hidden meaning.
Such scenes, which in lesser hands might run the risk of male gaze damnations, ultimately never stoops to such levels. Instead, the explicit scenes of intimacy that teeter delicately over the realms of soft-core pornography are designed to enrich characterisation, tangle the narrative web that bit more, and swing that allegiance pendulum every which way – this is sex with a real purpose, that is anything but skin-deep. Aside from the more obvious erotic overtones that sound loudly in certain instances (a library dedicated to erotic fiction for instance), there exists a sexualised suggestibility throughout that touches almost every scene, be it in long gazes captured in a mirror, ludicrously buttoned corsets, or make-shift domestic dentistry. The dialogue too, although at times far from suggestive, adds a welcomed contemporary layer to a genre of film that has traditionally tip-toed ever so carefully around its sexual components. The Handmaiden is, quite simply, a refreshing milestone in both period drama and LGBT cinema in South Korea.
The setting lends itself perfectly to the subject matter: gorgeously realised western/Korean hybrid exteriors and cherry blossom facades, beneath which lie seemingly endless labyrinths of closed doors and basements harbouring secrets and treachery. This is a film that pits the eyes and ears against one another. Progressively, what we hear isn’t always what it seems, and there’s deft humour and wit that often pops up at the most unlikely of times and in the most unlikely of places. Each and every detail is masterfully calculated and thought-out with impressive results – colour, costume, framing, pacing, structure, you name it. What slowly manifests is a tale that betrays any notion of convention or narrative predictability, which makes for a deep, enthralling, teasing thrust of narrative power.
Park is the true craftsman here, and there is real pleasure to be found in his craft. The result: a seductive, erotically venomous tale of devotion and deceit. The Handmaiden is a real triumph for a filmmaker at the top of his game.