Park Chan-wook’s films have always specialised in the outrageous and the transgressive, and that’s no different with The Handmaiden. To those unfamiliar with the novel (as I was) that it is based on, Sarah Waters’ Victorian mystery novel Fingersmith, the narrative hook at first appears fairly innocuous.
However, all of that changes after the first 40 minutes of the film – as it is soon made clear that the audience does not have the faintest clue as to what is really going on. The film is full of surprises – and it’s not just that Park Chan-wook, known for his more extreme efforts such as Oldboy, has made a film that is more intimate and erotic than it is disturbing.
In what seems to be his first real period drama (his Hitchcockian thriller/psuedo gothic horror film Stoker was unofficially so), Park shifts the setting from Victorian London to 1930s Korea – as a thief, undercover as an unassuming Handmaiden, attempts to defraud a rich Japanese heiress and steal her fortune, with the help of another thief, disguised as a wealthy Japanese baron. The plot only becomes infinitely more complicated from there.
Unlike the vast majority of his films number of his films, Park actually lays off the insane and bloody violence for most of the film’s running time, instead pouring his particular brand of lunacy into the structure of the story, and the interactions between the characters. Each new plot twist informs us a great deal about the characters, and we proceed to learn sad and disturbing details about each, in some of the most exciting, nuanced character building of the past year.
This isn’t to say that Park constantly aims to shock, to do so would make the surprises empty – instead, there is an extremely emotional and intimate lesbian story underneath all the pulpy thrills that the director’s film’s usual provide, bolstered by stunning performances from the main cast – the central couple of Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are absolutely magnetic, especially as their characters practically shape-shift before our eyes.
On top of this, The Handmaiden is expertly crafted, the cinematography and soundtrack are beautiful enough to forgive the film’s moments of gratuitousness. The set design is lavish and sumptuous, the setting blending perfectly with Park’s love for the ornate (see: the signature pistol in Lady Vengeance) The script holding it all together is absolutely wonderful, Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung making sure to retain a gloriously dark sense of humour amongst the intense drama. It’s a slick, strongly stylised piece with a surprisingly emotional core, and one of the greatest films that this year has to offer. To say anymore would be telling too much.
Dir: Park Chan-wook
Scr: Park Chan-wook and
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong
Prd: Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim
DOP: Chung Chung-hoon
Music: Cho Young-wuk
Country: South Korea
Run time: 145 minutes
The Handmaiden is out in UK cinemas now.