When a film is directed by Park Chan-wook they always catch my attention. Just the mention of Oldboy and Stoker as his past work should be enough to hint at his skill behind the camera. The Handmaiden is a beautiful example of just how masterful he is.
Based on Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is the story of Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired by Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a reclusive heiress who lives with her domineering uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Working as Handmaiden to Hideko, Sookee hides her real job, which is to help a con artist to marry Hideko and steal her fortune.
The Handmaiden is presented in three parts. In the first we get to know Sookee and see the grifter side of her. Working with con man Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) she looks to manipulate Hideko into falling in love. What actually happens is that Sookee is the one who falls for the reclusive woman, and seemingly falls victim to events she didn’t foresee coming.
Seeing Sookee’s downfall we then move onto seeing the same story in a different perspective. This is where things get more interesting, because we learn more about the seemingly innocent Hideko and who she actually is. Her manipulative streak she herself hides is introduced and this shows that nothing is as it seems. A very cold and seemingly unloving Hideko is in fact looking for a way to escape (very much like Sookee herself is).
To go too deeply into the plot anymore would spoil too much, but it is safe to say that the relationship that forms with Sookee and Hideko is what is truly beautiful about the film. While we see the male characters represented in dark and lurid ways, there is an innocence on show in the growing relationship between the two women that holds the true hope, and that is what grasps the audience and makes them take notice.
If you’ve seen Stoker then you know how visually stunning that movie was, and in many ways, that is a good gateway movie into the world of Park Chan-wook. When trying to sell this movie to people who aren’t really a fan of subtitled movies (yes, they exist) ask if they have seen Stoker and if they have then tell them this is better. While Stoker is daring and brave in what it presents, it is not as beautiful as The Handmaiden.
The love affair between Sookee and Hideko is erotic, and the build up to the love scenes are full of the tension which pulls the audience into the relationship that is building up before their eyes. It is interesting to see these scenes of seduction from both sides, and just how real they are to both of the women. It builds up a romantic edge to a film that could have been focused all on the negative aspects of the characters, where what it actually achieves is to pull the beauty out of a negative situation.
The Handmaiden takes what you expect from the film and turns it on its head so many times that it should be easy to get lost. In truth, and in Park Chan-wook’s expert hands we are told a truly beautiful story of hope in a dark world. Something we need right now; The Handmaiden is a surprisingly inspiring story of love in a world full of hate.
The Handmaiden is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray now.