“Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked…”
The Handmaiden is a deeply-sensual adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith.
But unlike Fingersmith, director Chan-wook Park’s version is staged not in Victorian Britain, but in 1930’s Korea, where a seemingly impressionable young girl, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), takes on the role of handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives with her uncle on a huge estate in the country, and Sook-Hee will be at her beck and call, both morning and night.
Sook-Hee arrives highly recommended and with glowing references; seemingly the perfect fit for the job. A more than satisfactory scenario for all concerned.
But, as sweet and obedient as Sook-Hee may well appear on the surface, there’s foul-play afoot, for Sook-Hee’s ‘master,’ – posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and a prospective suitor for Lady Hideko’s attentions – has a special set of instructions for the young handmaiden to abide by. She is to sing the Count’s praises at every opportunity whilst in Lady Hideko’s company, so as to convince her that she should be with him.
For The Count is a confidence trickster, intent only on getting his hands on Lady Hideko’s considerable impending wealth. Sook-Hee, fearful of the consequences should she disobey him, is just one of a number of young, impressionable girls that The Count holds under his considerable, wicked, dictatorial influence.
This in itself lays the foundations for a straight forward, but nevertheless intriguing tale. The Handmaiden, however, is anything but straight forward. This is in fact a story of subterfuge, whose plot twists and turns, deceives and frequently wrong-foots its viewer, as the distinction between hero and villain become blurred and confused, and any initial assumptions are turned on their head.
Chan-wook Park certainly doesn’t shy away from the gratuitous. Indeed, there are any number of moments when you may choose to avert your eyes, recoil or wince in equal measure. Added to this are the surprisingly long, drawn-out erotic scenes that unfold as the sexual tension builds relentlessly throughout the piece, making The Handmaiden a film to rival even the steamiest of mainstream cinematic offerings. The likes of Mulholland Drive, and more recently, Blue is the Warmest Colour, immediately spring to mind.
Far from being a mere vehicle for generous titillation, however, The Handmaiden is every bit a fully-captivating thriller in its own right, occasionally bringing to my mind at least, Peter Greenaway’s excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover – but as I say, that could just be me, in fairness.
It’s a film that has that certain something about it. Sumptuous, elegant cinematography, performances brimming with intent, and a plot that’s as clever as it is wicked, all combining to elevate The Handmaiden high above the many lesser offerings within this genre.
One can only hope that quality Korean thrillers that are unleashed in the Spring, are not long-forgotten come Oscar time.