The Handmaiden is a wild ride through sensual images that at times feel excessive, but so it is with Korean director Park Chan-wook, who again brings female sexuality front and center as something rather unique and perhaps incomprehensible by men (Film Review: blinding panache of ‘Stoker’ distracts from flawed but inventive script). The action starts when Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) who happens to be a Korean farmer’s son, devises a plan to get rich quick by marrying Lady Hideko (Kim Minhee), a gorgeous heiress, and then have her committed to an insane asylum. The con enlists the help of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) a Korean pickpocket who is promised a sum of the final loot if she becomes the handmaiden of the rich heiress and helps Fujiwara marry her to strip her from her inheritance by sending her to an insane asylum. With committed performances, the film’s many twists and turns span three acts and several levels of deception, sensual exploration and a most grotesque male gaze.
When Sook-he arrives to her new gig, she is struck by Lady Hideko’s beauty. It is only a matter of time for the two to get close to each other through daily routines of dressing and undressing. The closeness during a bath is thrilling for both maid and mistress. The closeness, care and warmth of bath time marks the beginning of intimacy for the two. Other scenes reveal this closeness growing, as the lady and the maid play dress-up and end up bathing each other with attention. In these moments the camera gets closer in tight shots showing the wince of a lower lip, averted gazes and soft caresses exchanged between the two. It is an erotic but also naïve moment. A seductive game between the two, one that makes the audience think that the plan Count Fujiwara has set in motion may be in trouble.
As the advances by Count Fujiwara grow, so does the relationship between the two women, which turns from naïve and sweet to passionate. One night, Hideko shares that Fujiwara has proposed to her, and the two begin to talk about marriage and what that would mean, purely at a physical level. That’s when Sook-he teaches Hideko how to kiss, and the sequence only evolves from there, revealing unbridled passion between the two women. Yet, the plan to get rid of the heiress moves forward, as she marries the count. But it is not time to discount the relationship between the two women, as this thriller has many twists and turns and only thickens as the plot moves forward. Park tells the same story from different perspectives, revealing in each act what the underlying motivations for each character are. Plots ultimately unravel to the strongest relationship that is able to survive all the plotting and scheming.
Aesthetically, The Handmaiden excels, with vivid colors and period costumes that are exquisite and intricate. There are also elaborate details in each corner of the Japanese mansion where most of the action takes place. The nature scenes are carefully manicured, serving as the backdrop of this game of seduction, lies and backstabbing. There are many explicit sequences between the two women, but these are accomplished shots that explore a liberating sexuality between two women who have been the subject of abuse. It is in these moments that they find something other than what they know, and the discovery proves to be a fueling force for the two, changing the plans they have both set off on.
The third part of the film unravels that last twists of the plot. Men are shown as cunning and lacking a true understanding of what women really want. They want to teach and explain in an imposing and possessive manner. Meanwhile, Park shows female sensuality as more subtle and beyond the understanding of his male characters. Credit must also be given to his co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung and to the novel on which the film is based, Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Overall, the film could use some editing (and there’s even an extended cut), as some of the scenes are repetitive. Parts one, two and three show different perspectives of the plot, yet some of the repetitiveness undermine the thrilling aspects of the film to an overall disservice of the narrative, which slows down through part two only to pick back up during part three. By the end of the film, you come to understand the intricacy of each plot. All the twists and turns lead to one fate, and you will be satisfied you went along for the ride. For Park, this is an accomplished effort that gets the best of his actors, lands impeccable cinematography, even if it went on for a little too long.
The Handmaiden runs 144 minutes, is in Korean and Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated. It will be playing in our South Florida area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Oct. 28. Further north, in Boca Raton, it plays at the Cinemark Palace 20. For nationwide screenings please click here. A screener link and images were provided by Magnolia Pictures for the purposes of this review.