Expecting nothing less than a twisted path into darkness, Park Chan-wook’s new super tense, pre-World War II tale of double-crossed passions does not fail to succeed in anything that anyone could have ever anticipated. Beginning, as what could be seen as a Korean Birdsong, lesbian romance, hidden within the crime side of Infernal Affairs, the film slowly tilts to what could only be described as a Louie-esque flashback in which the bleakness totally overpowers any chance of humour appearing. Suddenly, by the finale of part two, a twist… a twist that would overshadow the part in True Detective when Woody Harrelson shoots the guy who has held a young girl captive and the two detectives are explaining the story completely different to how you have just seen it’s multi-layers. Then, by the last act, affairs have completely changed again and you are left wondering whether the romantic pairing that the film closes with was anyone’s intention or just a matter of spontaneous chancing.
The film begins with a pickpocket Sook-Hee, played by Kim Tae-ri, being hired by the conman Count Fujiwara to infiltrate Lady Hideko’s household, which is owned by her authoritarian uncle Kouzuki, as her handmaiden. Once rooted in the running of the Hideko’s day to day affairs Sook-Hee, who goes under the name Tamako, is to play up Fujiwara as a potential suitor in order for them to marry and then when married Fujiwara is to commit Hideko to an asylum to claim her inheritance. After becoming completely enamoured with Lady Hideko, Sook-hee struggles to go along with the plan, at one point making love to Hideko, but eventually is convinced to let Fujiwara and Hideko elope together. From here multiple counts of double-crossing and deception take place, in which I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, giving the film a gritty cunningness that you would expect from a flick but wouldn’t expect from the high class society that Lady Hideko inhabits.
The whole film is a visual treat that captures the beauty in Korean aristocracy and countryside both. It also cleverly depicts the contrast between the absolute poverty that the lower classes dwelled within and the luxurious, regal lifestyle that the upper classes held within Japanese occupied Korea. This is shown mainly through the use of Sook-Hee’s living quarters both before she takes up Count Fujiwara’s offer, in which she lives in one room with a number of other women and countless babies that they look after and then the space that she inhabits when Lady Hideko’s maid, being a bunk bed in a hallway outside her Lady’s room compared with Uncle Kouzuki’s huge stately mansion that has innumerable rooms to house only two or so people.
Being loosely based on Fingersmith, a historical crime novel written by Welsh Writer Sarah Waters, but with the setting switched to Japanese occupied Korea, The Handmaiden provides an idiosyncratic look into a period of history that is rarely exposed to the western world. It takes us on a winding trail of deception and opens up questions into the lengths that certain hard-done-by people would have to go to survive in occupied land.
Director: Chan-wook Park
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
Runtime: 144 mins
Country: South Korea