Film Review – The Handmaiden (2016)

There is an alarming moment around two-thirds of the way through Park Chan-wook’s delirious and captivating The Handmaiden when you worriedly suspect you are about to witness the unholy union between man and octopus. Well, mercifully perhaps, the movie doesn’t quite go that far, but it’s a measure of the outrageous nature of this arresting and apprehensive drama that you do, for a second, fear that it might actually happen.

Bold, stylish and sensuous, The Handmaiden is a fantastically charming and hypnotic adaptation of Sarah WatersFingersmith, with the action transported from Victorian Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea. A spiraling and weaving tale of deceit, imprisonment, and lust, Park Chan-wook’s adaptation is effortlessly one of the best movies of the year and a thrilling, breath-taking watch.

A con man posing as a wealthy count, Fujiwara (Hang Jung-woo) enlists the help of a low-rent pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ree) to worm his way into the good graces of an enigmatic collector of pornography with the intention of seducing her niece Izumi (Kim Min-hee) and collecting her vast inheritance. With the pickpocket posing as the woman’s new handmaiden, a plan is hatched to make the lugubrious woman fall in love and eventually elope with the count, escaping the controlling hand of the uncle collector of smut, and leaving the con man and his pickpocket-cum-handmaiden fabulously wealthy.

A richly layered story unfolds in three sections and contains a number of thrilling bait and switch moments as a dense and exhilarating story unfolds.

Park Chan-wook’s has, through his previous work, shown himself to be a man who can not only tease out a well-crafted story but also do it with a striking and often unsettling visual flair. The Handmaiden is full of startling, unnerving and hugely moving moments of drama, sexual deviance, and genuine tenderness.

There’s also a neat meditation on the male gaze and something like a deliberate deconstruction, of male and female sexual urges. The genuine tenderness of the lesbian sex scenes which pepper the movie stand as an interesting counterpoint to the more sadistic moments of male focused pornography also weaving through the narrative. It’s a remarkable visual achievement that compliments an exhilarating and intoxicating narrative.

Chris Banks | [rating=4]

Drama, Romance | South Korea, 2016 | 18 |7th August 2017 (UK) | Curzon Artificial Eye Film | Dir.Park Chan Wook | Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo | Buy: The Handmaiden Special Edition [Blu-ray]