After making his English-language debut with underrated thriller Stoker, Korean master Park Chan-wook has returned to his home country to make The Handmaiden, a devious, knotty romantic thriller that marks his first venture into period fare.
Park’s previously demonstrated a Kubrickian ability to take other people’s material and turn it into something that feels uniquely his (his most famous film, Oldboy, was based on a Japanese manga for example) and he continues that trend here. The Handmaiden is adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh author Sarah Waters, a story originally set in Victorian London that was filmed previously by the BBC in 2005 starring Sally Hawkins. Park has transposed the action to 1930s Korea when it was under Japanese rule, which on the evidence of this suits the story just as well.
The film begins setting up its scenario in a relatively straightforward manner; Sook-hee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman raised to be an efficient pickpocket by a household of criminal types. One day she is hired by career con-man calling himself “Count Fujiwara” (Korean superstar Ha Jung-woo, working with Park for the first time). The job is to start working as a maid for a fragile, sheltered Japanese heiress called Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee of No Tears for the Dead). Whilst there, she is to assist in manipulating the Lady into thinking that she should marry Count Fujiwara, who intends to have her committed to an asylum and make off with her fortune once she does.
Things almost immediately fail to run as planned though once Sook-hee enters Hideko’s mansion – a sumptuously designed building intended to combine elements of English and Japanese architecture. Surprised by the Lady’s apparent naivety, the two women begin to develop a bond that turns to romantic affection. Their initial tender encounters, in some unusual circumstances, harbour a palpable tension that the actresses convey very convincingly. That could be all there was to this story and it might have sufficed, but this is far from just a simple tale of forbidden lesbian romance. It’s also a knotty crime thriller packed with unexpected twists and turns viewers unfamiliar with the source material would be hard pressed to see coming.
The film attempts a literal three part structure that I learn is taken directly from the novel. The first third is all told from Sook-hee’s point-of-view, even dropping in intermittent voice-over from time to time. This gives the audience a good vantage point, following her as she enters into the seductive world of Lady Hideko’s mansion.
At a crucial cliff-hanger of a moment though, the narrative takes an abrupt turn and Hideko’s perspective is assumed. This runs the risk of drifting too far away from the main narrative as it delves immediately into flashbacks to Hideko’s abusive childhood, where we learn many troubling facts about her upbringing. This drastic change does prove to be a little confounding at first, but Park manages to keep everything totally compelling as the unpredictable and disturbing events transpire.
Soon enough, we begin to see another side of events portrayed in the first act adding a whole different layer to them, fleshing out Hideko’s character even more so than before. It arguably takes a little too long in bringing us back to the cliff-hanger moment where we left off but from there it continues on in an ever more surprising fashion.
While the third act focuses more on Count Fujiwara, it doesn’t just take his point-of-view and relay events again, only beginning that way to give us some background on who he was before he entered the story. As the story progresses once again, it moves into caper film territory, adopting a slightly lighter tone for the most part to contrast with the more disturbing one of the second act. These elements have a sprinkling of cheeky fun to them which helps to round the story out in a highly satisfactory manner. Park’s hypnotic direction keeps the film fascinatingly watchable throughout, and his only real misstep is a torture scene that occurs very late in the game. This particularly nasty sequence involves both finger torture and a large octopus in the background and appears to mainly just be Park Chan-wook putting his signature on the film, something he’d more than competently done already with his style itself. The sequence goes on for too long and distracts a little from the more emotionally effective final scene that takes place immediately afterward.
While encompassing all the aforementioned elements of amusing espionage and deceit, combined with distressing moments of horror and abuse, The Handmaiden still succeeds in coming across primarily as a story of romance. The initial, subtle encounters the two women share convey a sensuality that it seems Sook-hee herself is not quite sure of. This is best encapsulated in a tender yet unusual moment when Hideko complains of a sharp tooth hurting her cheek. Sook-hee assists by placing her thimbled thumb into Hideko’s mouth to smooth it out and the burgeoning tension between the two intensifies notably. When Park does stage a love scene, he manages to pull off the tricky feat of having it be both highly erotic without feeling at all gratuitous or exploitative, in part by employing several unconventional camera angles. He even pauses during the likely commencement of a sexual act only to return to it much later in the film to show its outcome, altering our perception of the whole encounter. The two lead actresses both give fantastic performances that succeed in keeping them one step ahead of the audience regarding how much they know, but also in having us want to see them achieve what they desire to, without saying too much as to what that is. This could well prove to be a star-making role for debutante Kim Tae-ri, who reportedly won the part over hundreds of other applicants.
Upon one viewing, I wouldn’t quite rate The Handmaiden as highly as Park Chan-wook’s absolute best work, but it’s a triumphant return for him that only further cements his name as one of the most consistent and distinctive in world cinema.