Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Plot: 1930s Japan. A conman (Jung-woo), sends a pickpocket (Tae-ri) disguised as a Handmaiden to dupe a wealthy Lady (Min-hee) into marrying him. But the pickpocket falls in love with her mark.
When people think of Park Chan-wook, they usually jump straight to his most popular movie, Oldboy, known as one of the leading action films of Asia, and quite possibly the best Korean film ever made (not an easy statement to make). But Park Chan-wook has plenty of examples of director wisdom to his name from the Vampire love story, Thirst, to his psychological period piece, Stoker (every trending Asian film director usually has a stint in Western cinemas, it seems). Park Chan-wook is far more vital to cinema than an one-trick wonder and The Handmaiden is yet another solid entry into his filmography.
It is also probably his most intricate. Oldboy was amazingly paced, but quite a small scale movie, the narrative focused on the hauntingly surreal journey of one man. The Handmaiden not only jumps between three lead characters, but is a meticulously crafted period piece. From the opening silent beats, where children play on rainy, impoverished streets, stepping aside to let soldiers pass, this is a tale far more intricately weaved than any Chan-wook has put on before. The costume department deserve a standing ovation for the outlandish period gowns worn by every character, especially the heiress at the centre of the con. The set is dazzlingly as well, an estate that sees Eastern and Western culture collide, as the Korean owner of the manor tries to blend his two favourite countries together in his own abode (Japan and England – maybe referencing that Chan-wook is actually using a Welsh novel to adapt his script from here). But fear not, for those worried that a weighty period piece is awaiting us with this new feature from the Korean director. This is not really a film about 1930s Japan, merely the time period that bests set up the narrative of a secluded heiress being targeted by a greedy Count and a sharp pickpocket accomplice. Sook-hee is the young, bright girl, born from a family of pickpockets and brought into this complicated con. The mark is Lady Hideko, who is set to inherit her nasty Uncle’s fortune when he passes away. A conman who is aware of Sook-hee’s talents for subtle thievery approaches her about a con. He wants to convince this heiress to marry him, giving him all of the fortune he believes falsely acquired by the Uncle (he is a rare book collector, forging his collection to sell to unwitting buyers), and then place her in a madhouse, getting rid of any evidence of the forced marriage. All he needs is her willing hand until the ceremony, which is where Sook-hee comes in, posing as a Handmaiden, whispering into Hideko’s ear about how charming and eligible of marriage the con-man is. In return, she gets the fortune she needs to climb out of her impoverished life and away from the criminal chain her family has spent generations caught in. Sook-hee gets to the house and finds Hideko a foolish child, so sheltered from the world that she has reached an adult age with the common sense of a five year old. The ‘getting her into a madhouse’ part is pretty much a done deal from the first few moments, her being introduced running out of bed, screaming her head off, in a scene that provides both the film’s best jump scare and laugh. However, as Sook-hee leads this naïve woman to her incarceration and forced marriage, she begins to feel guilty at this con. Soon, the guilt gives way into a deeply sexual love for her mark and client.
The Handmaiden will likely throw a few people off praising it, due to the erotica origins of the text. Park Chan-wook has never shied away from portraying sex in his movies. His graphic sex scenes in Oldboy set up the final act twist with a killer punch. Here, the movie is dripping with sexual tension between the two female leads, as Sook-hee cares for Hideko, finding herself in a position where she sees every vulnerability, every detail, every inch of this woman’s character. Chan-wook makes the sex work, because the graphic nudity is about so much more than simply getting lesbian action on screen for the male fantasy. When Sook-hee and Hideko are in the throes of passion, characterisation bleeds from their bodies. The romance that slowly kindles between the pair of them is mesmerising to behold, as we find ourselves trapped in the fascinating bond between the pair of them. Chan-wook almost builds this strange sense of paedophilia between the two of them, but reversed. Sook-hee, youthful-looking, has so much power over her naïve Lady who is a decade older, that she seems like the manipulating adult in the relationship. Putting the fact she is duping Hideko out of her money and sanity to one side, her control over Hideko gives her the option to emotionally abuse her. Hideko, like a wounded child, asks that her handmaiden spend the night in bed with her during a loud storm, undresses her after evenings out. The most telling scene is the moment where Hideko brattishly complains about a sore tooth, while naked in the bath, and gets Sook-hee to grind it down for her, a scene that could have been so simple, but in Chan-wook’s hands, is a wonderfully complex piece of direction. When Sook-hee finally steals a kiss from Hideko, it is impossible to tell who is more in control. Sook-hee begins to lose control over her con, as soon as she allows her feelings for Hideko to erupt, losing favour with the Count and hurting Hideko in ways she never expected to. Yes, there are strange moments where the nudity does almost steal from the power of the film. Does the scene where Sook-hee and Hideko make love have to linger so long? Do we need to return to it later in the film, only for even more nudity and sexual positions to be shown? And one shot where we see the POV of Hideko’s vagina as Sook-hee hungrily leans into with her tongue is the one moment where Chan-wook might just push the border that step too far. But this is Eastern cinema, albeit with Western narrative beats, Chan-wook a fan of taking the strong points from both cinematic cultures, and erotica does make up a large part of the burning tension in this movie. Perhaps we can put up with scenes where Sook-hee and Hideko try out some sex toys in return for the original character pieces that emerge from the pseudo-sexual undertones.
And then there is the twist. Perhaps it was foolish of me to begin thinking that this was a straight story, when Chan-wook is famous for one of the most famous twist endings of all time. But as we watch the Handmaiden, so wrapped up in the lesbian relationship at the heart of the story, the film works just as strongly without narrative flourishes. However, when the story makes a surprising U-Turn at the halfway mark, the audience are left thrown and hurtling down a very Chan-wook roller-coaster ride. The second half is a lot smarter, moving away from the visual thrills of Chan-wook’s period piece (and yes, erotica indulges), and becoming a story so smart, it cuts like a whip. This is Chan-wook at his best, a director who crafts this complex story like an artist in front of a canvas. The twist is only one part of the side of the Handmaiden that impresses; overall, there is a lot to like about Handmaiden. It clocks in at a hefty two and a half hours, which is a lot to consume, especially when Korean isn’t your first language. But there isn’t really anywhere in the film that should be edited down, Chan-wook knowing which beats to rush and where to slow down. The second act is especially slow, but its all the more powerful because of it. It is revealed that Hideko’s nasty uncle has groomed her into reading erotic novels to audiences of horny men for money, a scene which is especially gripping due to the patience-testing scene. As a young Hideko is not only taught how to say penis and vagina, but taught how to read it aloud for maximum effect, it is easy to see why she has ended up as alienated from social skills as she is. And you feel even more sorry for the poor woman being the helpless victim of this dreadful con. Strangely, only the Uncle is a despicable character, one final scene really hammering home the old man’s twisted perversions, even the conning Count a strangely charming figure. It makes the Handmaiden a satisfyingly wholesome tale that, even at its long running time, a swift and gripping period piece. Park Chan-wook most certainly is not an one-trick wonder.
Final Verdict: Darkly sexual, grippingly told and wonderfully directed, the Handmaiden is not quite Oldboy, but a strong film nonetheless.