Loosely based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walter, director Park Chan-Wook moves the story from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese Imperial control where a conman, under the alias Fujiwara, tries to con the rich heiress Lazy Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) out of her illustrious inheritance. He enlists the help of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) but Izumi Hideko and Sook-hee begin to become close, and their feelings for one another begin to complicate the con.
Director Park Chan Wook trod on similar sexual ground in the film Stoker, but a film like The Handmaiden would never been made in Hollywood. Loosely based on Sarah Walter’s novel, Park’s screenplay is a labyrinth of lies in which treachery, deceit, and sex make up an intoxicating, erotic, and gripping story. The story is heighted by the nonlinear style of storytelling which deliberately leaves certain elements out. Reliving some scenes (the ones without the different perspective) again adds, needlessly, to the length of the film which is 168 minutes, if going by the director’s cut (the version I watched), and does somewhat patronise the audience. However, this Rushmon style narrative technique of showing familiar scenes from a different angle, changes the entire context of the scene and fleshes out character motivations, empathising the reasons for their behaviour.
However, despite the benefits the small but niggling issue I have with the way the story is told is that it omits information that certain characters would have been aware of. This was done for dramatic effect, ensuring that later plot points have a larger impact, and the film's twists would be less effective if the story was told conventionally. It feels a little cheap to omit certain bits of information and leaves the final act to pale in comparison to the first two.
The Handmaiden is a film that explicitly depicts lesbian sex scenes in a way American cinema would not, even with the critical success of films like Carol. The Handmaiden looks graphically at female sexuality and depicts it as something sensual, there’s nothing overly pornographic about the sex scenes in Park’s film as both sexual tension and chemistry surge through the two main actresses, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. In contrast, with all the male talk of cunts, clits, and interest in dirty stories, male sexuality is depicted as something ugly and lacking in sensual beauty.
The production design, with its mixing of English and Japanese architecture, is sublime as the film has all the hallmarks of Park-Chan Wook film such as the extreme violence, the dollops of dark humour, some of which works and some of which is so jarring its almost bizarre. Still, The Handmaiden isn’t a film that you’re going to leave without a reaction, even if you have to get your head around what that reaction was.