The Handmaiden is an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, moving the action from Victorian Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea. A young girl, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), is brought into a wealthy household to look after the heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is at the centre of a plot to be married off and her wealthy inheritance extracted by the mysterious Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo).
Just trying to put this film into a category is hard; thriller, crime drama, erotic/romance, mystery. It encompasses all of these themes and incorporates them seamlessly into one, contiguous story. It is beautifully shot by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and is a compelling, intriguing, fantastic story. Park Chan-wook has near perfect control of flow and pace, only once during the film did my mind wander, and teamed with the absolutely gorgeous visuals leads to enjoyment in every scene through the near 3 hour runtime in this extended version. The interaction between Sookee and Hideko is glorious from its conception and in its development, but at the same time you are left wary of the situation, holding them back, holding you back from them, not wanting to commit for fear of deceit. Count Fujiwara is delightfully controlling and plotting, and plays this despicably well. Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) is the ever-present but little seen, dominant figure in this household. He is the one who has created this lifestyle for everyone and does his best to keep it running. But this film is about the two female leads and rightly so, they are by far and away the leading lights.
The 3 act structure of the film is impeccably well done. At the end of the first act you think you know where you are but by the time the second act begins you have to start again in trying to decipher where the film is at. The repetition of the story from a different angles is a great piece of film-making. What could be interpreted as repeating the same scenes, is brought to you afresh, changing your perception of what is happening, who is in charge, who is controlling this and that situation. And then you are left doubting for the third act: Who is going to come out of this the winner, the victor.
For all of the great work that has been put into this film, some of the sex scenes might be construed as being a bit much, a bit over the top at times but having said that, for the most part, it is all necessary and integral to the plot and characters and does add to the characters’ development and their situations as we progress through the film, deeper into the story.
Park Chan-wook has taken Sarah Waters original text and created an amazing film, filled it with superbly rich characters, built it around a superb story and is just downright gorgeous. Further rewatching, I’m sure, will just bring more elements to the fore, enhancing the experience even more.