The Handmaiden, 2016.
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, and Jin-woong Jo.
Japanese heiress Hideko employs a new handmaiden, Sook-hee, but what she doesn’t know is that the girl is a pickpocket. She’s been recruited by a con artist who aims to marry her mistress and swindle her out of her fortune. The plot seems to be going according to plan, until Hideko starts to fall for her maid.
For Victorian England, read Korea under Japanese occupation in the 1930s. Oldboy director Park Chan-wook has taken Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith and changed its location and timing, turning it into luxurious thriller with more twists and turns than the writhing octopus that one of the characters keeps crammed into an all-too-small tank. The result is The Handmaiden, the director’s first Korean film after Stoker.
Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) comes from poverty, the daughter of a notorious pickpocket. And she’s following in her mother’s footsteps until suave con-man Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) recruits her to help in his plan to marry for money. Lots of it. His prey is heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives a reclusive life with her uncle, who has an all-consuming taste for pornography which he inflicts on his niece. Sook-hee takes up her new duties, Fujiwara wheedles his way into the affections of her haughty mistress and all seems to be going according to plan. But Hideko’s feelings for her maid intensify and all is not necessarily as it seems.
We’re seduced by the story within seconds and sink deeper into it as the first chapter of the film unfolds. The grandiose style, breathtaking visuals and sets, stunning cinematography with its liking for wide-angle shots – they’re all designed to captivate. And, as we’re introduced to the second part of the narrative, it’s apparent that the object of seduction isn’t just Lady Hideko. It’s us as well, because now the story is turned on its head, demonstrating that appearances aren’t just deceptive, but duplicitous as well. The irony is that, although we know that Fujiwara is a schemer and a crook, he’s way out of his league compared to Hideko. For years, she’s been dominated by her perv of an uncle, whose tongue has turned black from licking the ink he uses in his paintings. Given a taste of freedom, she demonstrates a determination and cunning that her so-called suitor simply can’t match.
Spine-tingling sensuality and intimacy – never has smoothing a rough tooth been so emotionally charged – live side by side with naked sexuality: two sides of the same coin. And this contrast motif recurs regularly throughout the film, but in different and often surprising contexts. Inside her uncle’s mansion, Hideko wears Western clothes and the house itself has an opulent British style: yet Sook-hee is clad traditional costume and the thousands of books filling up the uncle’s library are all in Japanese, with explicit Eastern illustrations.
The Handmaiden makes your head spin, with both its story and its images. A giddy concoction of sex and thrills, luxury and duplicity, it is never less than entrancing. And it’ll leave you gasping.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★