Film review | The Handmaiden: Sexy and gorgeous thriller from the Korean master

The Handmaiden is a film whose beauty is a strong, intoxicating narcotic which may prove all too intense for some, but whose wry sense of humour, sumptuous cinematography and serpentine plot captures your attention and caters to the needs of narrative entertainment

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
25 April 2017, 7:35am
Sumptuous, sensual and very, very sexy:  Kim Tae-ri (left) and Kim Min-hee subvert the best laid plans of a particularly devious man in the most erotic way imaginable
Sumptuous, sensual and very, very sexy: Kim Tae-ri (left) and Kim Min-hee subvert the best laid plans of a particularly devious man in the most erotic way imaginable
Loosely inspired by the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith – as it transplants the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea – the South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s latest foray contains his trademark manipulation of excess and plot twists to craft yet another jolt of intense cinema. 

While what ostensibly a costume drama may not, at first glance, jibe with the aesthetic direction of the man behind intense and/or hyper-violent cult classics like Oldboy (2003) and Thirst (2009), The Handmaiden in fact provides ample opportunities for Chan-wook’s explorations of sexuality and human depravity to seep through – lulled as the audience may be by the false sense of security provided by the film’s gorgeous costumes and production design.

When a devious con man operating in Japanese-occupied Korea concocts a cunning plan, his first stop is at an orphanage with a reputation of rearing thieves. ‘Count Fujiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo) enlists the help of the young thief Sook-he (Kim Tae-ri) in his scheme to defraud the mentally unbalanced aristocratic heiress Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who lives in total seclusion in her family property, currently presided over by her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) – an avid collector of literary pornography. 

Sook-hee is to become Hideko’s new handmaiden, gaining her trust and ensuring she falls in love with the ‘Count’, who intends to take advantage of her fragile psychological state and throw her into the madhouse soon after they’re married. 

But what the so-called Count could not have predicted is for the two women to fall deeply in love with each other... a complication that leads to a further flurry of them.

Ha Jung-woo
Ha Jung-woo
With a running time that spans over two hours, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film makes a softening, or at worst a clear and definite signal of artistic decadence from the shining light of South Korean cinema. After all, the costume drama is perhaps one of the most universally ‘polite’ film genres of all time; satisfying a reactionary, nostalgic streak that lies dormant in all of us. 

But the good news is that, while The Handmaiden certainly revels in the aesthetics of luxury, this is all just a front, a point of seduction to lure us into a story whose throbbing darkness is very much a lively, vital force.

It’s also a very sexy film, in every sense of the word: apart from a couple of quite explicit erotic scenes involving the two women – plot-sensitive, and punctuated by enough wry humour to short-circuit the inherent problematic of a male director’s gaze – the plot is also a deliciously wicked concoction that guarantees both suspense and entertainment. 

That is was a success story at Cannes last year is to be expected, as is the critical acclaim that was lavished upon it. But perhaps the most memorable – and heartening – aspect of the whole experience is that it very much stands alone as a piece of classy entertainment. 

The characters are nasty to each other, and the line between pornography and its critique is often blurred as the film snakes along its cheeky trajectory. But this is exactly what makes it a trip worth taking.

The Handmaiden is a film whose beauty is a strong, intoxicating narcotic which may prove all too intense for some, but whose wry sense of humour, sumptuous cinematography and serpentine plot ensures that it will capture both your attention and cater to the needs of narrative entertainment. In short, this is a period drama done by Park Chan-wook, and those familiar with the Korean provocateur would do well to remember that his take on this comfy genre will come with its own degree of discomfort.

But much like the sado-masochistic undercurrents that quiver beneath the belly of this gorgeous beast, it’s a pain that’s always tinged with pleasure.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...