Park Chan-wookSouth Korea145 minutes2016ColourKorean Japanese
A crook-turned-servant falls for the vulnerable heiress she had originally schemed to swindle, in this audacious, visually sumptuous, and highly erotic period piece from acclaimed writer-director Park Chan-wook.
With The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook transplants Sarah Waters' Victorian England-set bestseller Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. The result is a historical drama, an erotically charged thriller, and, above all, a magnificent romance. Under Park's sophisticated direction, Waters' tale, about a pickpocket-turned-servant and the heiress she conspires to swindle, provides the basis for something beautiful and brash.
Park utilizes the novel's three-part structure to tell the story from three distinct perspectives: those of Japanese aristocrat Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Korean thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), and pseudonymous grifter Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Hideko lives isolated in the luxurious colonial manor built by her tyrannical and depraved uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a book collector who forces Hideko to read erotic stories for his lecherous old friends. Into this bizarre yet static daily routine enters new handmaiden Sookee, who is in on the purported Count Fujiwara's scheme to marry Hideko and seize her inheritance.
But, soon enough, Sookee will experience a profound change of heart as she becomes far less interested in Fujiwara's scheme than she is in her vulnerable, repressed mistress. Growing increasingly intimate as they share Hideko's ornate wardrobe, her jewellery, and her bathtub, the two women edge toward an abyss of love that is as pure as it is passionately sexual. Lusty, role-switching games between lady and servant are interrupted along the way by morbid revelations, double-crossings, grave threats, and torture.
With his brilliant mise en scène, Park plays with taboos, genres, and styles to create not only a provocative film, but also a sumptuous feast for the eyes, the mind, and the heart.