A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.”
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a film that lives up to its trailer: fierce, electrifying, and enchanting. An exquisitely assembled erotic thriller inspired by the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith. The director maintains his signature style, especially apparent in Stoker (2013), in which he creates a constant tension between the beautiful and the grotesque. The story is a good fit for Park Chan-wook, as it carries his favoured elements of vengeance and abduction (see also: Lady Vengeance; Old Boy).
The Handmaiden features incredible performances from Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo Cho Jin-woong and the highly sought after Kim Min-hee, who has appeared in three features following The Handmaiden (On the Beach at Night Alone; The Day After; Claire’s Camera – with Isabel Huppert).
With so much focus on the erotic and macabre aspects of The Handmaiden, it is all too easy to forget that the film is peppered with humour. The relief of a surprise joke provides levity and a reminder that Park Chan-wook is a smart director. Credit for this must also go to screenwriter Seo-kyeong Jeong, Park’s serial collaborator (Thirst; I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok).
As an LGBT related film, it is worth asking: who is this film for? Parallels could be drawn between the audience and the group of men invited by Uncle Kouzuki to hear Hideko’s pornographic readings. Is the male gaze prioritised over character development? This scene noticeably echoes the lusty men in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
As the highest grossing Foreign Language Arthouse film at the UK box office in 2017 (Elle trailing in distant second place), it is no wonder that The Handmaiden has been nominated at this year’s BAFTAs.
Waters’ novel was adapted for television in 2005, and featured Sally Hawkins. Via Fingersmith, Hawkins provides a subtle link between The Handmaiden and her latest feature: Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Another striking film that, as with The Handmaiden, creates magnificent scenery against which to display hallucinatory, fever-dream sequences. Admirers of Park Chan-Wook should certainly explore Del Toro’s filmography.
The TV adaptation is worth your time, however The Handmaiden is such a bold take on the novel. It is nothing short of a whirlwind.
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