No More Workhorse

The Handmaiden – Film Review


The Handmaiden – Film Review by Frank L.

Director: Chan-wook Park
Writers: Sarah Waters (inspired by the novel “Fingersmith” by), Seo-kyeong Jeong (screenplay)
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo

The setting is Korea during the Japanese occupation in the nineteen thirties. However the source of the story is Sarah Water’s novel “Fingersmith” set in nineteenth century England. Park (Oldboy 2003, Stoker 2009, Thirst 2013) utilises the novel’s technique of telling the intricate tale from three separate perspectives even if the mise-en scene is different. Count Fujiwara (Ha-Jung-woo) is a con artist of considerable self-belief. Sook-hee (KimTae-ri)  is a young pickpocket who the Count engages to enter into the service of a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko, (Kim Min-hee) for the purpose of enabling Fujiwara to marry the Lady Hideko and thereby ensnare her fortune. Lady Hideko resides in a mansion of considerable grandeur being an unlikely amalgam of Victorian Gothic and Japanese architecture. Its interior creates a backdrop for stunning visual effects. Initially Fujiwara’s plan proceeds according to his wishes. However Sook-hee is not an automaton and is also driven by her own needs and desires. Lady Hideko is also more than a puppet. Fujiwara cannot ultimately control what he has set in motion as deceit and double crossing take their course.

Visually the film is breath taking. Each shot is succeeded by another of immense beauty while the actors convey the essence of the duplicitous characters which they portray. There are subtitles in yellow and in white representing the Japanese and Korean languages. Given the intricacies of the plot, the dual subtitles add a further level of complexity which is somewhat disconcerting but probably could not be avoided. There are several intimate erotic scenes which like all the cinematography is beautifully executed. In short Park controls this labyrinthine story with a deft hand.

It lasts almost two and a half hours but is able at all times to command attention with the sheer visual magnificence of what is being shown. Not the easiest of stories to follow (it is effectively told three times) but well worth the effort.