Director Park Chan-wook — most renowned for his Vengeance trilogy — is back at it with his latest film The Handmaiden, which tells an erotically tinged tale about con artists trying to bilk a heiress. Known for their dark, taboo-skirting themes, Park’s movies have helped Korean cinema gain respect on the world stage. The Handmaiden looks set to continue that tradition.
The film takes inspiration from the 2002 British novel Fingersmith, but it’s almost impossible to tell it’s adapted from a Western source. While Fingersmith has a Victorian British setting, The Handmaiden takes place in Japanese-occupied Korea. Certain modes like maids and aristocrats might look similar (authentically so, given Japan borrowed heavily from British nobility after the Meiji Restoration), but the imagery, traditions, and tensions of the film feel distinctively Asian.
As you might expect from Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden spins a dark, sensual tale that bit by bit reveals a trove of secrets. Deception is at the film’s core: by pretending to be an aristocrat named Count Fujiwara, a Korean con artist wants to seduce a cloistered Japanese heiress named Hideko. This fake Count aims to acquire Hideko’s fortune through marriage and then lock her in an insane asylum before absconding. To get closer to Hideko, he recruits a young lady named Sook-hee to infiltrate the lady’s household as a handmaiden. However, things start going awry when Sook-hee develops feelings for Hideko.
Perhaps “develops feelings” is an understatement. Sook-hee and Hideko engage in some of the most exquisite lesbian sex Korean cinema (and likely cinema in general) has seen. Eroticism and taboo pervade the film. Hideko actually lives on her (much older) uncle’s estate. Why? Because he also wants to marry her. We learn that this uncle is (and he even admits at one point) quite a dirty old man. Besides wanting to marry his niece, he has a massive library of classical Japanese erotica complete with tentacle-themed ukiyo-e screen paintings.
Consequently, The Handmaiden‘s main characters are all screwed up in their own special ways. Liars and thieves? Check. Sexual deviants? Check. Messed up childhoods? Check. Perhaps the most intriguing character is Lady Hideko herself, who assumes an increasing degree of agency as the film goes on and uncovers more and more of her secrets.
The Handmaiden might not be something you watch with young children or on a first date but, for all its darkness and mature themes, it’s quite entertaining. Like many of Park Chan-wook’s other films, it’s not inaccessibly artistic. There’s commendable cinematic technique for sure, but The Handmaiden‘s strongest suits are its characters, narrative, and ambiance — all of which don’t require a film degree to appreciate. Even though the film was 2.5+ hours long, I felt completely captivated throughout. Pay attention to The Handmaiden — it’s worth your time.
The Handmaiden (Korean: 아가씨) — Dialog in Korean and Japanese. Directed by Park Chan-wook. First released 2016. Running time 2hr 47min. Starring Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, and Kim Min-hee.