Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Kim Min-hee, Ho Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri.
Not to be confused with The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize nominated dystopian novel with a strong feminist slant, which was filmed in 1990 with Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway. The Handmaiden is a loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Booker Prize nominated novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England, and offers up an intriguing mix of sex, betrayal and deception.
The Handmaiden is a lush and visually rich erotic thriller about forbidden romance, madness, suicide, voyeurism, kinky sex games, sado-masochism, deception and secrets. The film also sees Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook return home to his native Korea after a brief flirtation with Hollywood with Stoker. No stranger to pushing the envelope, Chan-wook is known for his potent mix of sex and graphic violence in films like Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, etc. Chan-wook and his co-writer Chung Seo-kyung have updated the setting to Korea of the 1930s, when the country was ruled by Japan.
Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is a virtual prisoner in the stately mansion of her controlling uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). She is forced to read from erotic Japanese pornography for the pleasure of Kouzuki’s perverted friends with a penchant for ancient Japanese erotica. His basement is full of a cornucopia of depraved erotic delights. Kouzuki is a collector and forger of rare books. He also planning to marry his niece. But charismatic conman Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo, from the Korean action film The Chaser, etc) has devised an elaborate scheme to win her away from her uncle and then gain access to her inheritance. He enlists the help of Sookee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) an orphan and expert pickpocket. She poses as Hideko’s new handmaiden and is tasked with manipulating a romance between Hideko and Fujiwara, who is posing as a Japanese count and fellow collector of rare books. But complications arise when Sookee and Hideko soon discover their own passion for each other and send his scheme in unexpected directions.
Chan-wook serves up a variation on the usual man tries to cheat an innocent woman out of her fortune and there are plenty of twists and turns in the sinuous narrative. It is best to approach the film without too much prior knowledge otherwise it may ruin your appreciation of the clever plotting. The complex narrative itself unfolds in three acts, each one re-interpreting familiar events from a different perspective that changes the audience’s perception and understanding.
The Handmaiden is Chan-wook’s 10th feature film, and he has suffused the material with his usual dark tone and quirky touches. He generates plenty of tension from the shifting balance of power in the central relationships. It has been beautifully shot by Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, giving the film a seductive and gorgeously lush visual surface. This is a period piece, and Chan-wook’s attention to detail is meticulous, and the production design from Seong-hie Ryu is sumptuous.
Revenge has been a strong and consistent theme throughout most of Chan-wook’s cinematic oeuvre and it plays a key role here. The film simmers with a strong eroticism and sexual tension, and he gives us one of the best lesbian romance thrillers since Cat People. The sex scenes are strong but tastefully handled, although there is quite a graphic sadistic sex scene towards the end that may have a few members of the audience wincing in discomfort.
Chan-wook draws good performances from his leads. In particular newcomer Tae-ri gives a great performance as the naive ingenue and mixes innocence with hidden strength and sexuality. Min-hee brings some subtle nuances to her role, while Jung-wa brings plenty of charisma and a dangerous edge to his performance.
The Handmaiden has played well on the festival circuit and should do well on the art house circuit as well. It is a little long at 144 minutes and there are a few pacing issues in the middle.