Inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, director Park Chan-wook exchanges Victorian Britain for 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. A ravishing thriller, The Handmaiden is a ripe tale of desire and deception.
Orphaned pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is recruited by suave conman “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to serve Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). While masquerading as her maid, Sook-hee must persuade and ensure innocent Hideko falls for and marries Fujiwara, in an elaborate plan to steal her inheritance. However, explosive feelings begin to flourish between Sook-hee and Hideko, setting in motion a spectacular surge of twists and treachery. As the narrative convulses from alternate points of view, the realisation that you’ve been gloriously misled dawns on you.
The much talked about sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko are explicit but not exploitative. Bursting with suppressed urges, these intimate moments are an accumulation of yearnings that both actresses beautifully portray throughout.
A natural progression from Park’s previous (and first English-language) film Stoker which also darkly explored a young woman’s sexual awakening. The Handmaiden is bigger in scale and with deceit lurking around every corner, it’s reminiscent of Park’s masterful Oldboy. Frequent collaborator Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is as exquisite as ever, adding to the film’s scope and accentuating lavish surroundings.
A clinic in seductive sleight of hand storytelling, The Handmaiden cements Park Chan-wook as the master of misdirection.