In 2014, Korean director Park Chan-Wook announced that his next project, following his English-language debut Stoker, would be an adaptation of Sarah Waters novel, The Fingersmith. Transporting the action from the Victorian era to Japan-occupied Korea, Park offers his most erotic feature yet.
The Handmaiden follows three characters – young pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), fragile yet rich heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and a charming con-artist taking on the persona ‘Count Fujiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo). As the Count and Sook-hee conspire to con Hideko out of her money, an unlikely romance blossoms as a darker tale of deceit slowly unfolds.
Showcasing Park’s trademark themes of dark comedy and brutality, The Handmaiden weaves a complex narrative into this adaptation. Structuring the story and perspectives into three clear accounts, he cleverly executes twists that leaves an unsettled feeling in your stomach, which is only slightly dissuaded by its eroticism and occasional bouts of madness.
The cast bring an array of emotions and deliver multifaceted performances that make their characters hard to pin down. From Tae-ri’s innocent thief to Jung-wo’s dashing count, they all play a part in an elaborate game that changes at every turn, yet Park’s screenplay, co-written by Chung Seo-kyung, is surprisingly heartfelt and emotive – a stark contrast to the sensuality and dishonesty of the characters.
Visually, The Handmaiden is gorgeous – in fact, it is probably one of the most intricately shot films in years. Unlike the desolate Stoker and the coquettish Lady Vengeance, this incorporates lush colours and gorgeous scenery, forming an indulgently rich feast for the senses.
Overall, The Handmaiden is a sensual, captivating and enticing feature, whose heady combination of intense desire and revenge is complemented by its clever narrative.
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