A young Korean woman arrives at a vast mansion, taking up position as handmaiden to the niece of a wealthy aristocrat. So begins this erotic, psychological thriller, a taut and captivating exploration of deceit, power, and sexuality in Japanese-ruled Korea. The latest film from director Park Chan-Wook, who brought us the uber-violent neo-noir Oldboy, he smashes the ball out of the park once again.
Loosely adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, the film plunges us into a world brimming with lies, love, and betrayal; we are forced to second-guess the motives of each and every character. In many ways this is a heist movie, the target nominally a vast fortune, but in reality the control of the game, as the characters lead each other (as well as the audience) on a merry dance of hoodwinking and power plays. Each character has their own desires, strengths, and shortcomings, but Park never quite lets us fully grasp what these truly are. The resulting uncertainty kept me hooked; as my entire understanding of the power dynamics was liable to invert at a moment’s notice, I found myself unable to look away, or for my mind to wander. What’s more remarkable was how at each moment the reality I was being presented with seemed inevitable and incontrovertible, only to be dashed and reshaped scene after scene, a remarkable feat of storytelling.
This control over story progression is matched by the absolute precision of the camerawork. It allows the film to convey not only the ominous feel of unfolding events and apparent calamities, but to enhance and elevate this overarching inevitability. The set design is similarly immaculate, often seeming to reflect the status of characters occupying them – sometimes small and strapping, at others expansive and powerful. The overall visual effect is wonderful, a powerful evocation of mood, drawing out reactions in a visceral fashion.
Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to pull off, usually either lacking frisson or descending into self -parody. This is prevalent even in films centred around sexuality, notably in Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Blue is the Warmest Colour, a sex-based bildungsroman which presented itself as an exploration and evocation of desire, but ended up as an excuse for the director to conjure up a 3-hour reel of his lesbian fantasies – That it takes itself so seriously gives a film an inadvertently funny spin, and not in a good way. For The Handmaiden however, Park Chan-Wook overwhelmingly gets the balance right, with only a few moments held on for too long, or burning too bright.
The Handmaiden is a rare beast – thrilling, yet thoughtful. It has lingered in my mind long since I saw it, and is a film very much worth watching. Brought to life by a combination of taut writing, precise directing and nuanced acting, it breathes a cinematic life that is at once charismatic yet subtle, entrancing yet restrained.