The South Korean film director Park Chan-wook has always been an exceptional writer of seductive and pulsating narratives, like Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst, to name just a few. His newest production, The Handmaiden, is yet another enchanting piece of writing. It is also a fascinating interpretation of the Welsh novel Fingersmith, written by Sarah Walters; while Walters’ book is set in Victorian Era, Park’s film is set in 1930’s Korea, when the country was under Japanese occupation.
Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), an elegant conman, has a tempting proposition for Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young pickpocket; if she gets a position as a personal maid to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) – a Japanese heiress – and helps him entice her, he will share the woman’s inheritance with her – after he locks his wife-to-be in an asylum. Without hesitation, the girl accepts the offer and travels to Hideko’s mansion; there, she is introduced to the lady and her maid duties. Sook-hee quickly gains the trust of the fragile woman and an uncommon friendship is forged between the two, which includes physical attraction.
The Handmaiden is presented to the audience in three modes; at first, the film is seen from Sook-hee’s perspective – we get to know parts of her life’s story, her character and personality. The second part is narrated by Hideko, where we learn about her disturbing childhood – she recalls her rather mentally unstable uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who forced her and her aunt (Moon So-ri) to wear gloves at all times, to prevent them from damaging any of his books; books that turned out to be a selection of literary pornography; he also compelled Hideko to read some of the publications to the male audience. Her toxic relationship with Kouzuki continues for as long as they live under the same roof, which causes her emotionally vulnerable state. Hideko’s narrative also – to a certain extent – reveals twisted subplots that we have not seen at the beginning of the film. Piece by piece, the story comes together, and slowly the viewers begin to understand what is behind each of the character’s motives. The third and final part is again told from Sook-hee’s point of view.
Over time, we learn that Count Fijiwara’s devilish plan is not only to marry Lady Hideko, but also to get rid of Sook-hee, as she becomes more of a problem than of help to him. However, everything changes when the Lady falls in love with her maid and – without giving away too much of the plot – their ardent romance becomes the core of the narrative. What will happen when Hideko marries the Count? Will she end up in the hospital for the mentally unstable people, or will Sook-hee become the isolated player?
I liked the slow development of the two protagonists’ relationship; they took their time to unveil their desires and the true feelings they had for each other; there was no rush, and the pace of the story was completely unhurried. It felt like the two male antagonists became some kind of rejects, they thought that they were smart while trying to take over the women’s rights to decide for themselves, until an unexpected twist determined the men’s fate.
The lesbian theme, as well as Kim Tae-re’s and Kim Min-hee’s performances, have definitely surpassed Ha Jung-woo’ and Cho Jin-woong’s portrayal of scelerates – the men’s world is presented as a pitiable existence. The ladies’ sexual relationship is imparted sensually and tastefully – the filmmaker must have worked magic with the female actors as their consummation of desires is captured on camera gracefully – and the chemistry between Tae-re and Min-hee is sublime. In the country as conservative as Korea, having such strong homosexual scenes is definitely a great step forward. Korea of course doesn’t lack in erotic themed films, but The Handmaiden stands out as Park Chan-wook’s one-of-a-kind titillating masterpiece.
What makes the film even more engaging is the arresting cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy, Stoker, Lady Vengeance), as well as Seong-hie Ryu’s impressive set design- it definitely required loads of creativity in order to turn the Victorian British Era into the 1930’s Korea; she stunningly merged both English and Asian styles- she even travelled to Japan to find the most appropriate manor-house design, and after a very detailed research, she decided to use computer graphics to make the mansion – which appears in the film – look more realistic. I think she did a splendid job!
In one of the interviews, Park Chan-wook said that he really wanted to make The Handmaiden in 3D and that “3D would have emphasized the perspective of each character in a more pronounced way.” Sadly, due to a lack of finance, he abandoned that idea and focused on close-ups and camera movements, which Park believed was also effective.
The film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and received raving reviews; it was also nominated for Palme d’Or, but it lost to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. The director keeps himself busy and is currently working on the film entitled Second Born. Can we expect it to be as good as his previous works? I certainly hope so!
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Moho Films