The Handmaiden


Reviewed by: Evelin Toth

The Handmaiden
"One of the film’s leading forces is its stunning visual composition." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Park Chan-wook’s latest outing is an intricate amalgam of deceiving, layered storytelling and mesmerising visuals, all bound together by the provocative eroticism at its core. The Handmaiden, similarly to its literary source, Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, presents its story in three parts. Clouding the audience’s judgements, as the second and third parts reveal hidden depths and shocking twists on the first, Park puts his puzzle pieces together seamlessly, concluding in a grand finale of treachery, misdirection and heightened emotions.

An exquisite twist on thrilling Victorian tales, the film is set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is tasked with earning the trust of the wealthy, but naive Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) while posing as her handmaiden, convincing her to fall in love with the suave Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Little does the Lady know that the two are plotting to rob her of her wealth, condemning her to life in an asylum. Posing under the name “Tamako”, the handmaiden soon grows fond of the peculiar woman, threatening to collapse their plan in defence of her seeming innocence.

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One of the film’s leading forces is its stunning visual composition. Early scenes of Sook-he’s moderate circumstances are contrasted with the grandeur of Hideko’s mansion, a mix between the clean orderliness of Japanese architecture and labyrinth-like western Gothic buildings. The Handmaiden often feels theatrical; its scenes are carefully composed and masterfully acted out in its polished setting, while in moments of peak tension, the drama is often confined to one key location, Lady’s private quarters. The roleplay between Hideko and Sook-hee, the former dressing her maid up in her expensive robes is a masterpiece, playing on the erotic tension between the two with its lingering shots, while simultaneously hinting at the Lady’s underlying motives.

The blossoming connection between the Lady and the handmaiden misleads with its centrality to the narrative, distorting the viewer’s perception of naivety and ulterior motives as the drama progresses. The teasing sensuality swiftly gives place to a more explicit, more provocative eroticism, as the depths of the mansion are unravelled. Foreign architecture stands in as a symbol for the undiscovered; as it opens up, the layers to Hideko’s personality, as well as to the extent the grotesque and the erotic underlies the lives of its inhabitants begins to surface. The revelations of the house carry unforeseen consequences, thwarting the drama to reveal the masked depths to the characters’ allegiance to one another.

Hideko’s figure is the peculiarity of the picture; while the other leads remain consistent in their characterisations throughout, layers to her personality unfold with the drama. Each and every piece is revealed in a perfect, cathartic moment, shifting perspectives swiftly, as her true intentions surface. Her relationship with Sook-hee mirrors her journey, framing this intense, sensual tale of exploits.

Reviewed on: 14 Aug 2017
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The Handmaiden packshot
A handmaiden sets out to swindle an heiress but things don't go to plan.
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Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Based on Sarah Waters' Fingersmith

Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee, Jo Jin-woong, Kim Tae Ri

Year: 2016

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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