Review: The Handmaiden

Image credit: FilmIsNow Movie Trailers International

What do you get when you cross a popular British historical novel with a Korean director best known for his bloody, stylish revenge thrillers? The Handmaiden is the child of this perhaps unlikely union: many different influences fuse together to make a film that is crazy, bold, and beautiful. The setting has been transposed from Sarah Water’s original novel Fingersmith which was set in Victorian England to a 20th century Korea that has been annexed by Japan.

We are thrust into the plot with no preamble: Korean thief Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is enlisted in a scheme for financial gain that sees her become the titular handmaiden to the troubled and shy Japanese countess Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko has lived all her life confined in the house by her depraved uncle (Cho Jin-woong), and Sook-hee’s job is to ensure she falls in love with and marries the fraudster Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) so he can have all her money. They intend to lock Hideko up in an asylum promptly after she serves her purpose. But gradually, the two women find within themselves drawn into a bond that seems to transcend the schemes of the cynical men around them – if only they can untangle all the lies and barriers between them.

Sook-hee originally sees her new mistress almost like a doll: something beautiful to play with for her own enjoyment. The blossoming of their relationship into something deeper is movingly depicted. The film also explores deception in detail, and the way we try to construct the façade of our own identity, straining against the class and gender expectations we were born into. Hideko’s uncle wants to be Japanese. Count Fujiwara wants to be rich. Sook-hee wants to be free. The relationship between the two women is depicted explicitly, but also with a joyful, refreshingly female sensuality that is rarely seen in cinema. Their tender passion is contrasts with the depiction of the male gaze which is a key motif in the film. Its violence, bluntness and absurdity is simultaneously laid bare.

The production design in this film is exquisite – Hideko lives in a sumptuous mansion that is a fusion of traditional Japanese with elements of Gothic English country house thrown in. We can really revel in the genre elements that the film goes out of its way to provide in spades. Revel in the opium, secret libraries, and body parts in jars. Park Chan-Wook shoots with his usual bravura flare, and is never afraid to undercut an intense moment with humour. There are plenty of twists and turns, scenes revisited from different perspectives to shed new light on character motivations. The two leads have fantastic chemistry and give two hugely winning performances, leaving you rooting for them throughout.

Dark, funny, and erotic, The Handmaiden is an effervescent concoction that is wonderfully entertaining and lovingly crafted. 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest