The Handmaiden review: Erotic, exotic and fully empowered

Park Chan-wook’s film provoked controversy for its sexual content but is not the bloody spectacle most were expecting

Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden. Photograph: Mongrel Media.

Film Title: The Handmaiden

Director: Chan-wook Park

Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo , Cho Jin-woong

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 144 min

Thu, Apr 13, 2017, 07:00

   

“There are sometimes power outages but don’t be afraid,” explains the housekeeper as she leads the recently appointed maid through a labyrinthine estate that causes one to yearn for the comparative cordiality of Rebecca’s Manderley. The vast property belongs to the mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an odd young woman who has been raised to marry her monstrous uncle. The new girl, Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri), is a thief and a forger who has taken her post at the behest of a flimflam artist known as “Count Fujiwara”.

The conman hopes that Sookhee will persuade Hideko to run off with him instead. The plan is simple: Fujiwara will marry Hideko, commit her to a mental asylum, and split the fortune with Sookhee and her criminal family. But then Sookhee begins to fall for her enigmatic mistress. And Sookhee’s game may not be the only con in play.   

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ story of clandestine female lovers embroiled in Victorian-era houses, isn’t an obvious choice for Park Chan-wook. The South Korean director, whose Vengeance trilogy came to dominate cinematic discourse in the earliest years of the millennium, is certainly not unfamiliar with subterfuge and mystery – Oldboy’s tormented protagonist must find the captor who has kept him imprisoned for 15 years, Lady Vengeance’s titular heroine plans an intricate, bloody revenge as a kindly model prisoner – but has not, to date, displayed a knack for LGBT historical drama.

Park reimagines Waters’ story in Japanese-occupied Korea, a transplant that adds interesting colonial and racial dimensions to Fingersmith’s class struggles. Working with his regular female screenwriting partner Seo-kyeong Jeong (Lady Vengeance, Thirst, I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay), he carefully incorporates the female gaze into this rousing intrigue.

Having premiered in Cannes last year, The Handmaiden came under fire for its many explicit lesbian sex scenes, criticisms that echoed those levelled at Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour when it screened at the same festival. Can a male filmmaker possibly “get” such material?

Park’s sex scenes, as if in anticipation of the query, play around with perspective, and are cleverly counterpointed by the film’s depiction of male sexual appetite and of pornography as ludicrous and sadistic.

Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, who makes her feature film debut, keep you guessing until the satisfactory denouement and strike a sensual note that’s maintained by Chung Chung-hoon’s drop-dead gorgeous cinematography and the lavish production and costume designs of Ryu Seong-hee and Cho Sang-kyung.

This is easily the most lavish period piece of the past year, composed of striking, bewitching tableaux that could often pass for ancient scrolls or woodcuttings. The tricksy plot streamlines and improves the final messy section of the source novel, to tease and mislead even the most astute viewer. 'Not the grand bloody spectacle we were expected from the Stoker director, but a grand spectacle, nonetheless.