The Handmaiden is a fine reinterpretation by renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Lady Vengeance, Stoker) of the lesbian erotic book Fingersmith by author Sarah Waters. The film is a sensual, suspense thriller that visually assaults its viewer from the get go with its fast pace and incredibly edgy style. Park has created something truly opulent in all aspects, from its cinematography, design and plot, to its talented cast; it is truly an exceptional piece of work.
The story, rewritten for the screen by Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong, transports us from the book’s original Victorian setting and places it in 1930s Korea, which at the time was under Japanese rule. Separated into three sections, each section carries a different perspective around the same central storyline. Beginning at the arrival of a new handmaiden Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) who will be providing her services to the incredibly wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko is raised in isolation in her lavish surroundings, orphaned at a young age and is now betrothed to her older uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). Sook-Hee, is actually an undercover crook who along with her cohort Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), have plans on seizing all Hideko’s fortune. Fujiwara is fixed on getting Hideko to marry him, acquiring all her assets of which he agrees to split with Sook-Hee. However, things don’t necessarily go to plan.
Min-hee’s Hideko despite her stature is presented as a subservient character but is in fact secretly calculating; a wolf in the tamest of sheep’s clothing. Hideko hides behind the distance her wealth and status brings, withdrawing into her inner world and suppressing those unrealised rebellious emotions. Tae-ri is compelling as spiky peasant tomboy Sook-Hee, the way she focusses in on her character’s unexplored sexual feelings is superb and convincing as Sook-Hee is, not only, mesmerised by Hideko’s beauty but her subsequent infatuation.
Our protagonist’s sex scenes are refreshingly unabashed, never redundant or out of place, it all feels very much in line with the plot. Park builds on the tension that slowly develops between the two, by way of accidental touches of skin and secret glances. Min-hee and Tae-ri bring a sense of discovery and erotic exploration to these elaborate sexual encounters, which makes these scenes appear not only stimulating but also honest and innocent.
The film’s aesthetic is a kaleidoscopic exuberance of art-deco mixed with traditional Korean and Japanese motifs. The meticulous attention to detail, is breathtaking. Park enlists his long time collaborator, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who perfectly casts a muted dark-grey light over proceedings, giving scenes a gothic sheen whilst still retaining a sharp and vibrant look. There is also prevalent use of swooping camera movement and handheld POV shots which will have viewers bracing themselves for the unexpected.
Park has created something that is sublime and exquisite. He retains elements of his previous filmic efforts such as the mischievous sense of humour and the clever camera angles. Thematically, there is the familiar sinister intentions and the loss of innocence giving way to a brutal inner core. Although, a reinvention of Waters’ novel Park does, however, stay true to Waters’ original story in its strong lesbian theme, which in a mainstream Korean film is truly a punk thing to do.