The acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook latest venture is an adaption of the Welsh crime novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Walters. International renowned for his genius work on The Vengeance Trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengance, the iconic and brutal Oldboy, Lady Vengence; The Handmaiden is no exception to the brilliance of Chan-wook’s previous work despite being slightly more restrained on the violence and action.
In Park’s version of the lesbian romance, the setting is moved from Victorian Britain to that of colonial Korea in 1930’s under Japanese rule. Divided into chapters, The Handmaiden is a series of plot twists and unexpected character back-stabbings that constantly keep the audience second-guessing from three different perspectives.
A con artist calling himself Count Fujiwara hires Sook-hee, a Korean pickpocket to help him steal the riches of the beautiful Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko. By playing the role of a maid, Sook-hee is taken on as Hideko’s handmaiden, while her perverted uncle pressures her into marrying him. As the obligation to the devious plan collides with passion, Sook-hee’s task of getting her new mistress to fall for the Count complicates, as she starts to find herself falling for the Heiress. A kind of ménage a trois materializes, in which the Count and his phallic dominance become an annoyance to the pair.
Chan’s use of period detail makes the films aesthetics a delight, as locations and interiors are visually intricate, and in some way enforce the eroticism of the movie. Described by Park Chan-wook himself as a feminist film, a key narrative focus is the pleasure and liberation of women at the expense of men. Whereas The Handmaiden is an exploration of female sexuality and empowerment, the framework of the male gaze sadly still restricts it. Park falls into the trap of struggling to depict female sexuality outside of his imagination. The broad use of lesbian nudity and romance that borderlines erotica, shows the director’s obsession with lacy lipstick lingerie is for his pleasure.
Of course, no Park Chan-wook work would be complete without the obligatory cameo of an octopus, complimenting maybe the darkest scene in the entire film. Something that might be overlooked by the audience is the sheer comedy embedded in the script. Portrayed as impotent, pathetic slaves to their sexual drive, unwanted animalistic voyeurs of the women, both the Count and the Uncle are laughed at regularly for their perversions.
Clocking in at 145 minutes, the viewer is slightly patronized at times, replaying scenes from different angles and filling in gaps of time that are evident. The film does start to drag towards the end, with the closing scene of Hideko and Sook-hee lustfully and slightly over indulgently having sex; it felt like yet again that Park had not learned his lesson on how to portray female sexuality from a woman perspective. That or he was joking on the notion itself.
Overall The Handmaiden is a great success, with its Matryoshka doll plot line, and it is a hugely entertaining thriller that combines both sensuality and sexuality, with spectacular visuals.