The Handmaiden exists at the juncture between arthouse and mainstream, pornography and melodrama, serious history and ludicrous imagination.
It features full-on, explicit lesbian sex, astute political commentary about the Japanese occupation of Korea, and a glimpse into the dark heart of the male psyche, all wrapped up in a bouncy crime caper that rivals the most convoluted of John Le Carré novels (it’s a loose adaptation of British novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, albeit transported from Victorian England to 1930s Korea).
These disparate elements are held together by director Park Chan-wook’s opulent, quietly menacing visual style, and restrained, taut performances from the three leads. There is breathy desire in almost every interaction, a slow-building lust that inevitably boils over into hot, sticky sex.
A handsome, arrogant fraudster going by the name Count Fujiwara plots to marry and destroy the niece (and bride-to-be) of a perverted old aristocrat with a penchant for sadistic period erotica. To aid him in this, he enlists the pretty young Sook-Hee to work as handmaiden to the object of financial and sexual desire, Hideko.
It’s a story told in three acts, with frequent flash-backs offering new perspectives on previous events, allowing the audience to slowly unpack the film as if they were opening an intricately wrapped gift, although the conceit does occasionally become a little heavy-handed, languidly spooling over the same material.
There are elements recognisable from Chan-wook’s previous work, notably the sumptuous gothica of his debut English-language movie Stoker, and the pot-boiling, bloody revenge yarns that make up much of his Korean filmography (he has eight directorial credits in his native tongue, of which Oldboy is best-known internationally). There’s even a visual reference to the live octopus that’s devoured in Oldboy, which manages to supersede its predecessor in terms of stomach-turning psychological dread.
What initially appears to be a rather misogynistic narrative about ruining a vulnerable woman through sexual conquest twists and writhes in utterly unexpected directions, going through various permutations of overt feminism and uneasy exploitation.
And while there’s no escaping the fact this is a film directed by a man that gazes voyeuristically at two beautiful women going at it, the female characters both bring agency and energy to their roles, portraying a desire not to perform, but to subvert the insidious patriarchal forces. In this respect, Chan-wook both has his cake and eats it, and it tastes delicious.
First published in City A.M.