Review: The Handmaiden

 
 

Directed: Park Chan-Wook

Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo

Release Date: April 14th

Runtime: 144 minutes


With its mesmerising visuals and surprises at every turn, The Handmaiden is a film not to be missed. Directed by Park Chan-Wook, whose previous offerings include the critically acclaimed Oldboy, the film follows Sookee, a young woman who is appointed as a handmaiden to the wealthy heiress Hideko. Sookee tends to Hideko in her extravagant manor house which she is forbidden to leave under the orders of her cruel uncle Kouzouki. We soon find out, however, that nothing is as it seems.

Sookee is in fact a pickpocket hired by con man Fujiwara to take part in a plot to defraud the heiress of her fortune. Together they devise a scheme to make Hideko fall in love with Fujiwara who poses as a wealthy count. After she marries Fujiwara, he will arrange to have Hideko declared insane and cast off to a madhouse while both he and Sookee split the fortune between them. What they don’t account for is Sookee and Hideko’s growing attraction towards one another; before long, the two become entangled in a passionate love affair.

“Above all, one thing is clear: every character has something to hide.”

The film is inspired by The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, though instead of Victorian England, this tale is set in Japanese-occupied Korea. Like the book, the film is split into three acts, with each act observing the scenes unfold from a different character’s perspective. With each act, revelations about the prior one are disclosed, allowing key information to be carefully drip-fed, creating twists and making the story impossible to predict.

The narrative strikes a perfect balance between moments of humour against the dark, unsettling undercurrent. The Handmaiden pays great attention to detail with intricate costumes and stunning set design, while the narrative is set to a powerful and captivating score, capturing the emotion of the story perfectly.

But it is the characters which truly stand out. Faultless performances are delivered from the entire cast—the men are misogynistic and abusive, the women gentle yet cunning. Above all, one thing is clear: every character has something to hide.

Intense, explicit erotic scenes are present throughout. This is predominantly seen through Sookee and Hideko exploring their own sexual desires, liberation from the expectations of the men determined to control their lives.

While sex is certainly a focal point, to simply summarise the film as “erotica” would be a mistake. At its heart, The Handmaiden is a thriller, a tale of love and deception with surprises at every turn.

In a nutshell—A dark tale of seduction and trickery with many twists and turns; truly an artful masterpiece.

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