Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Runtime: 145 Minutes
Park Chan-wook’s typical stylings concerning social dynamics, noir tropes and contemporary gothic horrors as seen through the vestige of extreme Asian cinema couldn’t be better suited to the source material of Sarah Waters. A loose adaptation of her historical novel Fingersmith; an exceedingly brilliant and twisted Victorian crime tale of a gaslighting scheme involving legacy, deception and clinical insanity. Transporting the story to Japanese-occupied Korea and utilising the backdrop of its colonialist underpinnings to further inform the characters and narrative of the original text – as well as a devilish reworking of the sexually promiscuous title – The Handmaiden extrapolates and twists the already insubordinate and beautiful material into something entirely new and affecting.
The film is a masterpiece of electrifying delights that works on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin this shower of acclaim, as so many of its beautifully attentive themes, concepts and characters are explored and fulfilled with overwhelmingly satisfying grace.
As a trained thriller, Chan-wook strides through the narrative twists and revelations as the mystery unravels with a cosmic elegance that maintains the quiet discomfort and dark ambience that he’s so compatible with. Separated into a three-act structure that revisits prior experiences and developments from an entirely new perspective fill in every crevice on a narrative and performance level as the plot bends to the whims of its characters. Able to explore and deconstruct the visual hallmarks and structural complexities of the film noir with a command so versatile and capable that the film is able to switch between conflicting emotions in a single cut – or combine unflattering extremes at once.
Tapping into the sadism and incarceration of Oldboy, the women of this story are the supposed pawns of a larger game that has been played by illustrious and sexually deviated men in a world of sexual indulgencies and hardwired fetishism. The men of this world see the women in their lives as subservient emblems of their own personal and financial requirements, tying them into situations where they thoroughly believe that they have a hold of the reins – all the while blind to just how naïve they might actually be in comparison in their struggle for dominance.
Because what Chan-wook and Waters share is an innate understanding of not only the nature of sexuality, but how it is weaponized by the patriarchy and the male gaze as a means of forceful submission. The relationship that blossoms between Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is presented not as a means of titillation and sexualised fantasy – although its indulgencies are more than stimulating enough – they are there to inform character and motivation and reinforce the growing kinship between trodden down spirits.
Every scene of lovemaking, every touch of the shoulder, every lingering glance toward the bare flesh of the other draws them closer together as their personal loyalties are submerged beneath their passionate dedications to one another. Underneath the pretext of this psycho-sexual thriller is a genuinely good-natured and elevating love story that makes fantastic use of Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee’s delightfully pleasant and powerfully intimate performances. The same is to be said of the colourful villains of the piece in Ha Jung-woo’s profusely dishonest ‘Count’ Fujiwara, and Cho Jin-woong’s gleefully nasty Uncle Kouzuki.
With all of this comes Park Chan-wook’s innately delicate and viscerally charged direction. A master at work whose distinctive flourishes never undermine his ability to craft an elemental cinematic experience. The rhythmic qualities of its structure and dialogue work in tandem to produce something essential and born into to the cinematic form, edited with a pace and flow that matches the novel’s remarkable prose in a new medium. The details of the heavily physical sets and costumes are staggering as hidden chambers and visual oddities reveal themselves and grant everything a tangible feel – as explored through Chung Chung-hoon’s extraordinarily boldfaced cinematography. The setting of the labyrinthine house with both a Western and Korean architecture is more than a mere call back to the novels period setting, but a component in the villain's idealisations of culture and sophistication made into something physically extravagant yet striking. Cho Young-wuk’s score is also a divine and stimulating orchestral aural compliment of rousing excitement.
The Handmaiden is an impossibly enjoyable accomplishment that carries class, depravity, heart-breaking drama and sexual charge through its sumptuous beauty, unashamed intelligence and earnest stimulation.