Set in 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation, Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous new film, The Handmaiden, is a twisting thriller adapted from Welsh writer Sarah Water’s much loved book, Fingersmith.
Chan-wook’s film is divided into three parts and begins by telling us the story from the point of view of Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean pickpocket who is enlisted by a ‘Count’ (Ha Jung-woo) to help him seduce a rich girl, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is held prisoner inside a giant mansion by a sadistic book collector. Sookee is hired as Hideko’s maid, but instead of committing fully to the Count’s plan for him to seduce Hideki and steal her money, Sookee instead begins to fall in love with Hideko, leading to a number of erotically charged sequences that culminate in a number of highly stylised and exquisitely filmed sex scenes.
The tension between the two women is electric, with a simple moment in which Sookee files down a tooth in Hideko’s mouth, being played in such a manner by Chan-wook and the two actresses, that you can’t help but hold your breath throughout. It’s like watching a fuse slowly burning down, with an explosion about to occur at any moment.
Whilst there is no shortage of languid shots of the women in various states of undress, shots follow a logic that is all about getting us into the mindset of the two protagonists – in the second part the action switches to Hideko’s point of view – and understanding their feelings. Park Chan-wook also makes it pretty clear that men are generally pretty awful – it is the women that hold the real power and need to break free from the patriarchal manacles thrust upon them – and also weak and easily manipulated by sex. There are number of sequences in which we see men being read erotic fiction, and the reactions are entirely played for laughs, as they are revealed to be weak and rather ridiculous.
Whilst not filled with laughs – this is at heart an erotically charged and thrilling potboiler – The Handmaiden is a great deal of fun and Park Chan-wook does a such a good job with the film’s many twists and turns that many of them left me with a broad grin on my face, impressed as I was at the sheer audaciousness of the plotting. He also plays with these twists in the plot in a visual manner, frequently returning to a scene we have seen before, only to show it to us from a new angle. Rather brilliantly though, we rarely actually see something significant that we didn’t see the first time, but armed with new knowledge this new view brings home the different way in which we feel whilst watching the events unfold.
The Handmaiden is like a corkscrew: the plot slowly twisting and turning, but gradually focusing in on one point. It’s brilliantly done and an absolute joy to watch.