Writers: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo kyung, Sarah Waters (novel)
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-woong
Running time: 144mins
What’s the story: In 1930s Korea, when the country was under Japanese rule, a pickpocket posing as a handmaiden schemes with a local conman to rob a Japanese noblewoman of her fortune.
What’s the verdict: Since making an impression on the global stage with the military thriller JSA back in 2000, South Korean director Park Chan-wook has become one of the most audacious and exciting directors on the scene.
A Park Chan-wook movie is not watched, but experienced. The films are playful, dark, violent, shocking. Typical themes include betrayal, revenge, obsession and secrets, and each new film is a cause for celebration.
The Handmaiden, his tenth feature, is another 5 star triumph to sit alongside Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Thirst and Stoker.
A sprawling, elaborate and labyrinthine tale of intrigue and deception, told as a battle of wills between the sexes, this is a glorious journey through the darker recesses of human desire.
Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a skilled pickpocket, employed by suave conman “Fujiwara” (Ha) to infiltrate the house of Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as her handmaiden. Sook-hee’s mission is to pave the way for “Fujiwara” to arrive posing as a Count and marry into the Lady’s fortune.
Hideko lives under the tyranny of her pervy uncle Kouzuki (Jo) whose predilections are slowly and disturbingly revealed. And it seems the Lady may be fascinated more by her new handmaiden than the dashing Count.
All this is based on Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, previously adapted as a three part mini-series starring Sally Hawkins, and reworked here by Park and Chung Seo-kyung who retain the novel’s three-part, multi-viewpoint structure.
Bold story shifts and flashbacks tease out characters’ motivations and dark histories, with Park’s handling of the myriad plot threads a director working at the top of his game.
Yet, much more is at work here than simple conniving. The Handmaiden is rich with allegory and metaphor. Lady Hideko’s vast mansion is a literal embodiment of the three main characters, well-ordered on the surface but full of hidden chambers, corridors and spyholes revealing darker desires. While Kouzuki’s basement is the deepest sludge the mind can conjure…
Ever the cineaste, Park throws in rolling drums on the soundtrack to echo Kubrick’s The Shining, another film about male/female war in a large, foreboding living space.
The Handmaiden also sees the director at his most sexually explicit to date. Brimming with scenes of fearless eroticism, sex becomes almost another character, weaponised by all players and obsessed over by men who believe it a gateway to the women’s minds.
Sexual metaphor also extends to the Japanese occupation of Korea, a violent inhabitation of a foreign land. An added frisson here is that all characters, Japanese or Korean, are portrayed by an exclusively South Korean cast (with flawless Japanese delivery where applicable).
And this cast is note perfect, particularly Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the Lady and the Handmaiden, delivering performances spanning a breadth of moods and emotion.
Regular Park cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon imbues the gorgeous visuals with fetishised texture; the fabric and weave of Jo Sang-gyeong’s costumes and the surfaces of Ryu Seong-hie’s sets given a tactility that brings this bizarro, carnal wonderland to full-blooded life. All accompanied by Jo Yeong-wook’s suitably off-kilter score.
Daring, provocative and rewarding, Park Chan-wook’s 10th feature film is suitably 10 out of 10.
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