By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
1930s, in Japanese occupied Korea a conman who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hires a pickpocket to be a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, so she will be able to gain her trust and convince her to marry the Count. The Handmaiden is loosely based on Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith which is set in the Victoria era, but Park Chan-Wook in The Handmaiden change the historical setting to a time when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule and shows how it affects its two lead characters.
The Handmaiden revolves around two females characters, Lady Hideko (Kim Nin-hee) the Japanese heiress and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) the handmaiden/pickpocket. These two characters are the focal point of the film. The film is divided in three chapters, the first chapter takes Sook-hee perspective, the second Lady Hideko’s perspective and the third and last chapter the narrative is shown from the perspective of both. The film tries to highlight how oppressed are the two female characters who are used by Count Fujiwara and Lady Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki as a way to advance their current social status, the former wants Lady Hideko’s inheritance and uses Sook-hee to accomplish his malevolent plan, the latter is a rich book collector with a penchant for pornographic books, which he makes her niece read to entertain his aristocratic friends, but he also wants to marry her and inherit her fortune to extend his book collection.
Park Chan-Wook meticulous detailed mise-en-scene of 1930s Korea, his direction and his co-screenwriter credit makes The Handmaiden a film that belongs very high in Park’s acclaimed filmography, whose other films includes Oldboy (2003), Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) and the underrated Stoker (2013). All Park’s usual traits are found in The Handmaiden, like explicit sexual scenes, black humour, flawed characters and an obsessive attention to detail that renders each scene to look like a real life painting but The Handmaiden lacks the violence and the unbearable cruelty found in his rest of his films. But the most impressive part of the film is its editing and the way it unravels and re-unravels its narrative, as it starts in a linear narrative and then at some points it gets interrupted and use an extended flashback and just witnessing how the editing work so seamlessly between the main narrative and the flashback makes the film a more immersive and satisfying experience, because it requires us to pay attention to its story of duplicity, betrayal, manipulation and sexual tension.
The musical score by Jo Yeong-wook is very atmospheric and makes every scene feel more naturalistic and some composition manages to make you feel like you also reside in the 1930s Korea, it is the emotional source of the film, and makes the writing and the acting feel more effective and convey additional meaning, without the addition of the score it would feel that something important was lacking in creating a believable setting for the characters to inhabit.
The only thing that will not satisfy many viewers watching Park Chan-Wook ‘s film and are unfamiliar with his previous films, is the way he films the sex scenes between the two female characters as he keeps the camera lingering in their naked figures for couple of minutes, and the pornographic readings performed by Lady Hideko, which is Park Chan-Wook’s way of critique the way people consumed pornography of that period, but to some watching old aristocratic men enjoying a young girl reading a pornographic book might insult them because of how realistic Park has film these scenes, showing grown men satisfied faces in a close up and their faces glowing with excitement as the story becomes more explicit, but Park further stir our reaction by enhancing the depravity of the aristocrats by showing their twisted fantasy that has Lady Hideko whipping them.
The Handmaiden is an intoxicating experience, as it has exquisite set design, superb acting, female sexuality and it is hugely entertaining, even though it seems like a period piece that has characters endlessly talking to each other.