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It begins in 1930’s Japanese-occupied Korea in a time when Korean history, culture and language was marginalized or often banished. We meet Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean orphan girl raised to be a pickpocket among a family of small-time con-artists. Grown older, she is hired by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to be the handmaiden for the reclusive heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who the Count, pretending to be an aristocrat, plans to woo and then marry before dumping her in an asylum and stealing her money. Taking the name Tamako, Sook-hee is meant to earn the woman’s trust and relay what she learns.
We come to find out that Hideko is herself trapped in the vast estate by her domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), a collector of antique erotica who forces her to read them to him, which involves costumes, re-enactments and more. He is a fiercely controlling man who holds great power, and we discover that his wife had once done such things for him as well, but she eventually committed suicide. As the Count presses himself closer to Hideko, she succumbs to his advances for marriage, but behind all this, in the darkness of night as Hideko an Sook-hee spend time together, their own passions for each other stir, and the two fall desperately in love. But there are more secrets between these people than what first appears, and their designs to betray lead to twists that have devastating effect.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook, The Handmaiden is adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It changes the setting from its original Victorian English era, but in Park’s hands, feels perfectly fit for the shift. At times an enigmatic mystery and psychological thriller, it is also a deeply engaging love story that is often terrifyingly violent, an experience that only Park could deliver in what is surely his most accomplished work yet. A daring, often arresting film, it unsurprisingly pushes boundaries while never feeling exploitive, culminating in a lesbian sex scene that is unabashedly raw yet undeniably authentic. It’s a brash moment of fulfillment that staggers, having less to do with sex than the women themselves.
The story is a thick tapestry of fiendish plots, razor-sharp manipulation, and breathless seduction that is so sumptuously presented by a director so in control of his vision, he makes us long for shots to play on, much like his characters for each other. Never so patient nor so attune to the space his actors move in, Park holds us in a grip from the start. Watch in one moment where he frames Fujiwara up close to the camera, facing us, his back to four people he is talking to. Notice how they are positioned by an unspoken hierarchy and how one is unseen until the camera makes a slight shift that topples that rank. It’s a magnificent shot, and one of many, including several within the cavernous home of the Uncle and Hideko, a mix of Western and Japanese architecture that Park finds room to create and exploit powerful emotional moments.
The film pulses with urgency, even when it slows to a long, near voiceless sequence when we witness a private reading of one of Kouzuki’s collected works to a small group of very specific men. Without betraying the moment’s hypnotic overtones, they are enraptured by a performance that is beguiling to observe, but equally perverse as the men’s faces detail with extraordinary clarity the enormous satisfaction it delivers. It’s a sex show, but unlike anything you expect, and Park presents it with layers of ominous constraint. It’s a carefully staged act that has larger purpose.
The Handmaiden is a wonderfully artistic film that while violent and erotic, is also gloriously shot and rich with metaphor, all ensconced in a haunting, dramatic score by Cho Young-wuk. A tragedy at heart, it is a passionate story of our greater vulnerabilities, a daring movie that like most Park films, is disturbing and yet feels as if truly important.
Movie description: The Handmaiden is a 2016 South Korean erotic thriller about a young woman hired to be a wealthy Japanese woman's maid, though she secretly schemes with another to steal her fortune.
Director(s): Chan-wook Park
Actor(s): Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo