The Handmaiden is a twisting, turning revival of the erotic thriller
Sensual isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook. After all, this is the director behind such brutal films as Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and Stoker. It’s surprising, then, to see his latest film The Handmaiden, the story of an orphan sent to work for a mysterious heiress, is a romantic period drama, focusing on forbidden love, restrained emotions, and genuinely erotic moments of intimacy. At least, it is for the first ten minutes.
Adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith (with the action moving from Victorian-era England to 1930s’, Japanese-occupied Korea), The Handmaiden pulls the rug out from the audience every chance it gets. From the very beginning, we are misled; opening with scenes of a tragic orphan ripped from her family and sent to serve the niece of a mysterious Japanese dignitary, its quickly revealed that the orphan is actually Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri, a winning antihero), a pickpocket sent to convince heiress Lady Hideko (the staggeringly good Kim Min-hee) to marry Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo, perfectly despicable), a con man who wants her fortune. At first, Sook-Hee is only interested in jewels and fancy gowns, but after a few sexually-charged encounters with the innocent Hideko (including an extraordinary scene involving a sharpened tooth and a file), the pickpocket begins to change her mind, doing everything in her power to stop Count Fujiwara. Does Sook-Hee really love the heiress? Can The Count be trusted by anybody? And is Hideko really as innocent as she seems?
All of these questions will be answered by the end of part one, but even the answers act as more puzzle pieces. The Handmaiden is a mystery with reveals-upon-reveals; twists aren’t always what they seem, character motivations are kept ambiguous, and scenes are played multiple times from different perspectives, each one revealing new information. While the film is occasionally silly or over-the-top, it never stops being fun, gradually turning each seemingly serious plot element into a lurid twist or turn.
As a modern master of violence and psychological horror, Park Chan-wook can never resist pulpy thrills and ultra-violence, but The Handmaiden is by far his most elegant and mature work to date. The sweeping, kinetic cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon is gorgeous, all the better to capture the beautifully designed sets and costumes (far from the grungy days of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Chan-wook even shows how graceful a romantic filmmaker he is; the tentative seduction of Hideko simmers with restrained sexuality, while the deliberately-provocative, theatrical sex scenes are some of the most daring and erotic in years. However, even a restrained Chan-wook can’t resist the chance to give his audience nightmares, and the darkest sections of the film, like Hideko’s mysterious “readings” for her Uncle and his associates, or the secrets kept in her Uncle’s basement, will stay in your head long after the film ends.
Like all of Chan-wook’s previous films, The Handmaiden will be too extreme for many tastes. The plot is complex and ruthlessly clever, the characters are unpredictable and often hard to like, and both the sex and violence are graphic. However, the director is masterful in his control of story, tone, sound and visuals, crafting a thriller that excites, shocks, and arouses in equal measure. As elegant period drama, erotic thriller, and violent genre film, The Handmaiden is a rousing success.
By Harry J. Ford
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