Regular contributor Helen Tope has reviewed Chan-Wook Park’s film The Handmaiden which is currently showing in the PAC cinema until Thursday 25 May. Limited tickets remain for this weeks screenings, book now to avoid missing out!
The Handmaiden is a South Korean film based on the novel Fingersmith by author Sarah Waters.
The film diverges from the Victorian setting of Fingersmith, relocating to 1930’s Korea, which was at the time under Japanese occupation. A young girl, Sook-Hee (played by Tae-ri Kim) is hired to work as a handmaiden for a wealthy heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives under the guardianship of her bookish Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woon Jo) on a palatial countryside estate.
But the maid is not what she seems. Sook-Hee is not a servant, but a pickpocket. Recruited by a conman who gives himself the name Count Fuijiwara (Jung-woo Ha), Sook-Hee’s task is simple. She must persuade the beautiful but vulnerable Lady Hideko to fall in love with the Count. He will elope with her, steal her fortune and lock her away in an asylum, splitting the proceeds with Sook-Hee.
It’s a diabolical plan, and the Count sees few obstacles, except the one that stares him square in the face. Sook-Hee, an orphan left to make her way through a Dickensian landscape of poverty and crime, finds herself drawn to the motherless Hideko. Their friendship grows into something deeper, and their bond leaves Sook-Hee conflicted. Can she betray the woman she loves?
As the plan moves to its conclusion, alliances are betrayed. The plot begins to reveal its inner workings; and we are forced to question everything we have just seen.
The film, directed by Chan-wook Park, is lavishly detailed. You are taken into another world so evocative it is utterly beguiling. The beautifully-decorated sets make it difficult to know where to rest your eyes. The impulse is to take it all greedily in, but there is so much chinoiserie, lace and brocade you don’t know where to start. It’s deliberately overwhelming, almost giddying, but Park’s confident direction stops it from becoming all about the bling.
The costumes, designed by Sang-gyeong Jo, are simply incredible. Like its protagonists, the clothing (silk, chiffon, satin) is just begging to be touched. Modern meets tradition here, with Japanese kimonos sitting side by side with European tailoring, and neither feels out of place. The colour palette with its greens, whites, and bruising purples are more Wildean than anything else. A pair of earrings that Sook-Hee coos over, are Art Nouveau through and through. While the Western hemisphere grapples with the Great Depression, Hideko’s estate is a world out of time, barely aware of what is happening beyond the garden walls.
Hovering between the past and the present, dualities are scattered throughout the film: obedience and rebellion; sound and silence; sensuality and perversion. The Handmaiden’s depiction of erotica deliberately challenges the viewer, moving swiftly from the familiar to the disconcerting. The library Uncle Kouzuki so jealously guards, provides the backdrop to reading sessions, where Hideko is forced to read erotic texts to groups of men, all squirming in their seats. Hideko’s relationship with her Uncle is the damaged counterpart to the joyous celebration of sexuality she experiences with Sook-Hee.
For all its visual splendour, The Handmaiden’s real beauty is in how it works its audience; a device hidden within a device. The intricacies of the plot are revealed with impeccable timing, wrong-footing the audience again and again. The Handmaiden’s ability to unsteady its audience has led critics to make comparisons with Hitchcock, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see why. With its emphasis on intrigue, family secrets and sexual tension, tonally The Handmaiden sits somewhere between Marnie and Vertigo. Along with Hitchcock, the layers of misogyny – declared and implied – are what gives this film its grit. From Uncle Kouzuki’s eager humiliation of his niece, to the Count’s assumption that the seduction of Lady Hideko will be easy work – The Handmaiden subverts these ideas with excellently-drawn female characters. Lady Hideko’s watchful scorn and Sook-Hee’s street smarts have us on-side right from the beginning. Obedience, demanded by Kouzuki and the Count, is only ever skin-deep.
The girls’ rebellion is deep-rooted, with Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko’s relationship played out on screen. It’s a film that certainly earns its 18 certificate – I’m still blushing – but the frank depiction of lesbian sexuality has resulted in some critics wondering whether the film simply goes too far. The sex scenes are undoubtedly graphic, but the plot would not be able to move forward without them. It is the characterisation of Sook-Hee and Hideko (enabled by terrific performances from Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim) that keeps these scenes from feeling exploitative. Approached with not only delicacy but humour, these scenes are a world away from faceless pornography.
Many adaptations play fast and loose with the source material, but The Handmaiden wins points by remaining loyal to Sarah Waters’ excellent novel. At the heart of the story is not revenge, but a desire for freedom. Freedom to live, and love, without impunity. Chan-wook Park does an excellent job of not only alerting us to this motif, but keeping it fresh in our minds as the plot continues to reveal its hidden depths.
For all its diversions, The Handmaiden remains impressively single-minded. The good end happily, the bad unhappily. The denouement is as richly satisfying as any Victorian three-decker novel. Pastiche is very easy to get wrong, but The Handmaiden is a gem. It is a film that so deftly seduces, you are hardly aware of it. Operating by sleight of hand, the magic is performed unseen. It is an old trick, but when done this well, the reveal is as staggering as if it were being done for the first time. Beautifully crafted and exquisitely detailed, The Handmaiden always makes sure you are looking the other way.
Helen is a freelance writer, working and living in Plymouth.