Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is already one of the most successful subtitled films to be released in the UK and is on track to become the highest grossing foreign language film of the last five years. It’s a dramatic thriller filled complete with subterfuge and sexual desire set in a subversive world which transcends cultures and is constructed in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The story is told from multiple characters’ alternative perspectives and timelines, twisting expectations and perceptions in its depiction of this intriguing story.
Sarah Waters is one of the most respected and adored authors in the UK, with female protagonists and issues of sexuality central to her award winning oeuvre. Both Tipping the Velvet (2002) and Fingersmith (2005) became well received BBC television series. The latter work was also adapted by Park Chan-wook to relocate the story to Korea. It is set in the tumultuous time of the Japanese occupation where cultures, languages and etiquette are fundamental to understanding both the story and its complex characters.
In 1930s Korea the country is occupied by the Japanese, resulting in difficult situations for the local people, many of whom want to become serving staff to those wealthy individuals who live in decadent homes. Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) departs from her normal job, which includes a useful knack for picking pockets, to become a housemaid at an aristocratic family home in order to serve as a handmaiden to a reclusive heiress. “My job is to look after the lady,” she declares as she is renamed Tamako by the family and sleeps in a confined closet across the corridor to the bedroom of the Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The lady herself sometimes has delusional dreams, partly because of trauma following her aunt’s suicide, hanging from the cherry tree that was brought to the estate from Japan. Meanwhile her uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who also resides at the mansion, “loves books and paintings more than he loves his own flesh,” and offers readings of erotic literature by Hideko to wealthy individuals who visit the house. Lady Hideko’s situation is due to change because she is soon to be married to Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), but he has other plans: he is scheming with Sook-Hee to acquire her money. One thing the two women do know is that, even though they are cultures and classes apart they have developed a close relationship even as their respective situations become increasingly uncertain. Fraud, fatality and treachery ensue from all angles.
A film in three parts, The Handmaiden is filled with intrigue and the narrative shows throughout how aspects of the past have affected the present in many different ways. Often this is achieved by showing the same event from different points of view, in the key acts of the piece, but these scenes never contradict what has been depicted before, we are simply offered a different perspective. The interpretation of the characters and their motives and aspirations is revealed in a way that is twisted both in their personal recollection of past events and the evolution of the story. So the audience is shown everyone as they want to be seen and not necessarily as they are. Ultimately this is an exquisitely shot film about desires and their ways of manifesting themselves or being obtained. Sometimes this is purely financial extortion and gain, such as the multiple aspects of Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), in his seeking Hideko’s inheritance or his business of forging paintings. Often, though, the desires are sexual, whether that be the virgin lady and maiden becoming lovers or the more brazen urges of the men folk who enjoy outré intimate shows. Kouzuki’s desire for pornography extends to the classics works of the writer of The Lizard Skin (indeed “The snake marks the bounds of knowledge” also marks the boundaries in the home) and into the realm of shunga, erotic woodcut prints, including The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Hokusai Katsushika.
All versions of the film have been passed uncut by the BBFC, which is fortunate as there are a variety of formats available for your consideration when buying this hugely successful film in your own home. The choice includes the theatrical releases on DVD and Blu-Ray, a special edition Blu-Ray with extras and an extended version of the film, as well as a Sainsbury’s double-DVD version of both versions of the film which you can purchase when you are buying your milk and bread in store.
Combining intrigue and revelations in an expertly crafted, beautifully shot manner, The Handmaiden is a distinct erotic thriller that surpasses more formulaic aspects of that genre, mixing cultural and class divergence to tell its own view of a powerful romance. A remarkable reinterpretation of a novel that works in its own unique environment and with its own style.