The Handmaiden, the latest film from director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker), is a two-faced tale of passion set in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation, with enough visual flair on display to make it one of the year’s most sensual and overall pleasing experiences.
A partial adaptation of author Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’, the story of The Handmaiden is told from three perspectives; Japanese noble Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), her Korean servant Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), and conman Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Sookee is persuaded by Fujiwara to help him in his schemes in pretending to be a count and eventually betrothing Hideko, by posing as the estate’s new maiden and tending to all of Hideko’s needs. Unexpectedly, Sookee falls for Hideko and the two engage in a sultry love affair of intimacy, as their roles are reversed between object and subject, and a deadly path takes its course.
What really helps The Handmaiden stand out is the ingenious performances at its center; well-dimensionalised and successful in gravitating the material of the screenplay. That’s not to say the script is in any way weak, as it manages to balance being a turn-of-the-century historical epic, an erotic thriller, and a foreboding romance, all at once without missing a step. It could be argued that it also builds upon what Chan-wook attempted to do with his last film Stoker, but with far greater results, in creating a perverse story of forbidden taboos with a shocking conclusion.
Chan-wook, best known for his Vengeance Trilogy, utilizes the best aspects of those films here, most notably several surprise twists, nightmarish visions, and grotesque, unforgettable moments of violence. For such a film that appears brightly lit and picturesque on the surface, its amazing how dirty and cruel it slowly becomes over the course of the narrative, though much of this is thanks to the work by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and production designer Seong-hie Ryu.
The Handmaiden succeeds so well through constantly thwarting the viewer’s preconceived notion of how the story will play out, and thankfully, Chan-wook’s long con pays off with an exceptional finale. If at all else, you won’t think of silver bells the same way again.