What do you get if you mix Park Chan-wook, the director of possibly one of the best thrillers of all time (Oldboy of course) and British writing royalty Sarah Waters’ Victorian era set classic, Fingersmith? Well you get The Handmaiden and quite frankly, as an audience, we are lucky that this film exists because it’s bloody terrific. In The Handmaiden, Chan-wook has moved the setting from Victoria era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule in the early 1900’s and has found inspiration in Waters’ historical crime novel cum romance.
The Handmaiden is an outstanding piece of cinema – following a foray into English language cinema with the incredible Stoker, Chan-wook is obviously a director at the top of his game and has created an epic period crime drama, which is sure to get the pulses of audiences racing from the very opening scenes. The screenplay (which Chan-wook co-wrote alongside Chung Seo-kyung) is about as twisted as they come, filled with surprises at every corner and masterful at exposing the true intentions of the characters. Alongside the screenplay, The Handmaiden must be celebrated for its costumes, locations and soundtrack – all of which come together in a delicious pot of magnificence. They all work to create a masterful piece of cinema, creating suspense and tension, gripping the audience and clasping tight.
To say that The Handmaiden is one thing or another would be reducing the sum of its parts and not giving the film the credit that it deserves. Rather than one genre over another, this is an intelligent hybrid of crime, thriller, eroticism, period drama and romance (try getting your head around that) – taking influence from the best of noir, the sexuality of an erotic thriller, the immensity of a period epic, the pulp crime story and best of all, the femme fatale(s) who truly control the direction of the story.
In short, the story follows Sook-hee (the innocent looking Kim Tae-ri), a woman hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee is involved in something bigger, she is part of a plan involving Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) who has hired her to help defraud the heiress and run away with her fortune. But really nothing is as it seems in The Handmaiden and over three individual parts, the story unravels to explain who has allegiances with whom and shows that you can trust no one.
The Handmaiden is a visually opulent piece of cinema, which doesn’t take itself too seriously – this juxtaposition between the incredibly perfect look of the film and the wild storytelling brings the audience into the story. It means at certain points, moments are laugh out loud funny and others are turn away from the screen and hide behind your hands scary.
Sexy, extravagant and grand, The Handmaiden is a piece of cinema that deserves to be watched on the big screen.