What can be said about Park Chan-Wook? Famed for his thrillers such as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, although personally I prefer his off-beat love story I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok, he is one of the most-well Korean directors in the West, and in 2013 made his first English-language film with Stoker. Now he returns to Korea but with a film inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith.
Young pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), is hired by conman Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) to aid him in his seduction of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), a shut-in Japanese heiress who is mercilessly used for the entertainment of her sinister bibliophile uncle (Jo Jin-Woong). Sook-hee begins her work as Hideko’s handmaiden, but things become more and more complicated as the women begin to develop feelings for each other.
The film is undeniably beautiful, the design is lavish and the cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon matches it perfectly. The term “feast for the eyes” may be overplayed for some, but is highly applicable to the sheer detail on display.
There’s a patchwork nature to the film; based on a novel set in Victorian England but here presented in Japan controlled Korea in the 1930s, the house with its Western and traditional Japanese elements, and there’s also a touch of Giallo in Hideko’s constant glove wearing. It all adds to the sense of never being entirely sure of the characters and their motives. The film is love story, crime story, and Gothic thriller all rolled into one with very precise moments of levity which never feel out of place. Park Chan-Wook juggles all of these things in an artistic fashion. Absolutely nothing in this film is what it seems, everything from the characters to the house where a large amount of the film takes place to even simply the opening scene of the film all take different meanings and significance. It makes for an interesting and engrossing film, particularly when you spot certain lines of dialogue being used again and again in new ways in each of the film’s three distinct acts. It also isn’t too interested in adapting its source material fully or faithfully. The first act is taken almost exactly from Sarah Waters’ novel, but from there the film goes in its own direction in a way that works a lot better with the story of cons and double-crossing which Park Chan-Wook is trying to tell. Fans of the novel may be disappointed, but I’d encourage them to take the film as its own different entity. In many ways its attitude to its characters is reminiscent of Park Chan-Wook’s previous film Stoker, which also was very much a power play between three central characters.
However, where the film falls short for me is in the relationship between Hideko and Sook-hee. Not in the emotion, both actresses do a very fine job, but rather in the more intimate scenes. All the sex seen in the film is done in a way that is distinctly male gaze-y; lots of very long lingering close-ups and done to be as sexy as possible rather than to be about the characters’ emotions in that moment. Essentially it’s overdone to the point of fetishization; a little disappointing, particularly when LGBTA themes have been fairly underrepresented in Korean cinema.
The Handmaiden is a twisting, sumptuous treat, the filmic equivalent of a rich chocolate cake, but much like a rich chocolate cake there are parts that might be a bit too much for many.
This film was screened as a part of the London Film Festival and will be released in the UK February 17, 2017