Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is exactly the style and quality of film one would expect from the filmmaker. It is thoroughly entertaining and a visual feast.
Sook-Hee is to pose as a handmaiden for the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko, and gain her trust. Count Fujiwara wishes to get his hands on Lady Hideko’s fortune, with Sook-Hee’s help. So begins a game of intrigue…
There is so much to like about The Handmaiden, that it is difficult to know where to begin. The film is based on the Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. The narrative is set up in parts, and each of these are engaging. The plot of the film twists then twists again. There are plenty of clues, which become more apparent as the film progresses. The narrative is well paced, and executed finely. Park plays up element of mystery, keeping viewers gripped.
Characters in The Handmaiden are depicted with colour and authenticity. Park reveals more about the three main characters as the film progresses, but not too much. This is in keeping with the sense of mystery that runs throughout. When a reveal does take place, there is enough that it is suitably convincing. Yet there is also a level of suspicion. These are rewarded in roughly equal measure.
The Handmaiden straddles a curious line between a female centric vision and an exploitative gaze. The main characters are strong female protagonists and there is a emphasis on them using their wits to outmanoeuvre patriarchal figures. However, some of the film’s erotic scenes veer into exploitation territory. With another director, this may have been very off-putting. However, Park’s style is so hypnotising that he is forgiven this transgression.
Park’s direction is excellent as ever, as is Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography. The composition of shots, and movement of camera is most satisfying. Like Stoker, costumes and art direction are luscious. Kim Tae-ri and and Min-hee Kim deliver good performances; their chemistry is enjoyable to watch. With The Handmaiden, Park offers engorged, bewitching cinema.
The Handmaiden is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016.