Not one to hold back on his storytelling with his usual themes of vengeance and eclectic mix of trademark black humour, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an intricate and intimate erotic thriller of desire, betrayal and deception.
Taking inspiration from Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith‘ which was set in victorian era England, Park Cha-wook instead transports his film to the decadent beauty of Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s.
Following a young girl named Sookee who is hired by Lady Hideko, a reclusive heiress who lives in a mansion under the watchful eye of her Uncle, as her handmaiden. However, Sookee’s intentions are not what they seem as she has been recruited by Fujiwara, a con artist who has been posing as a Japanese Count, to trick Hideko into entrusting him with her fortune. Yet, it is when Sookee and Hideko begin to develop unexpected feelings for each other, that they start putting together a plan of their own.
First and foremost the thing that you will notice about The Handmaiden is that this is an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema. From the first moment until the last and whether it be the landscape, gardens, gothic architecture or period clothing, each scene is drenched in just as much elegant, decadent beauty as the next. Punctuated with a number of scenes of sensual and sexual imagery, often via a voyeuristic point of view, never does the film feel exploitative or unnecessarily explicit, instead taking a more tactful artistic approach.
It also wouldn’t be a Park Chan-wook film without his trademark comical black humour and over the top characters. Whatever is being portrayed on the screen, he still manages to inject a vivid and twisted sense of humour never seeming out of place. Similarly, his characters portray traits that although seem at odds with the tone effortless work together in harmony. Whether it be the two fantastic lead performances from Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim drifting from intensely compelling to melodramatic and slapstick, to Lady Hideko’s almost cartoon villain Uncle (Jin-woong Jo) and his perverted book club listening to pornographic tales being read to them.
Although the film adopts a simple three act structure, it frames them in such a way that each act switches its perspective which gives the same scene an entirely different meaning. By slowly pulling back the layers of this tale of hidden love and sexual desires, it ensures that the viewer is constantly kept on their toes whilst the plot thickens and the intrigue grows more compelling. It is this mechanism that likens elements of The Handmaiden more to the plotting of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
The film also takes the time to examine the oppression of the female characters through their male masters at a time in which this would have been common place, addressing this imbalance. Park Chan-wook instead has given these women the ability to liberate their own freedom and confront their masters as the loathsome selfish exploiters that they are. It is all of these elements that give The Handmaiden a multilayered depth to its intricate and passionate storytelling.
The Handmaiden is bursting with sumptuous beauty and its numerous contrasting tones in visuals, humour and characters, effortlessly work in harmony. As its story of hidden love and sexual desire unfolds, it slowly gives up its secrets to unlock this puzzle plot thriller. Park Chan-wook’s intimate and intricate erotic thriller is complex and visually dazzling but ultimately an irresistible sensory treat.