Park Chan-wook’s obsession with revenge continues in his latest film The Handmaiden, though it looks as though this story could be something altogether different from its opening. Erotic, emotionally charged and unsurprisingly laced with a splatter of torture, The Handmaiden is a return to both Chan-wook’s thematic preoccupations and native Korean language after his English language debut, the wonderfully eerie Stoker.
Told in three parts, The Handmaiden is no step back for the auteur, even if it not only repeats itself in its own internal structure, but also traverses similar territory to his previous films. The three parts are central to the twists in the story as Korean thief Sookee is employed to be the handmaiden of Japanese heiress Hideko in part one. Sookee is actually in the employ of a fake Count who is keen to swindle Hideko out of her fortune by seducing and marrying her and then having the poor woman driven mad and locked up in an asylum. Sookee’s job is to convince Hideko that she really does love the Count, and in return Sookee will receive a portion of the fortune. But when Hideko and Sookee start to feel a growing lust and affection for each other, allegiances are tested.
Where this goes in part two is highly unexpected with part one ending on a cliff-hanger and then part two flashing back to repeat much of the elements of part one from new angles and new perspectives. While this can be hugely rewarding as scenes are extended and new motivations and mysteries unravelled, it also leads to a mid-film lull that could have been excised to make The Handmaiden a more efficiently delivered film.
The betrayals are shocking, but it is the unexpected depths of feeling that emerge as exchanges are explored and histories revealed through frequent flashbacks as the film goes on. As passions grow between certain characters, Chan-wook revels in startlingly sensual sex scenes that are laced with an exciting sense of discovery, innocence meeting experience and emotional complication as it is rarely clear if the depth of feeling between some characters is genuine.
The Handmaiden nimbly explores themes of exploitation, with Hideko appearing to be a victim of not only the men around her, but also her deceptive handmaiden Sookee. But as exploitation gives way to experimentation, there is the possibility of Hideko turning the tables on those who seek to use her for their own gains. The Handmaiden has plenty of surprises, but most of these are soon delivered in part two of the story, leaving a third part with few new surprises and starting to overstay its welcome.
Though it could have done with a little trimming, The Handmaiden is a darkly feminist tale of exploitation and betrayal. Chan-wook celebrates the sexual potential of sisterhood between his leads, offering a tale set in a mostly closed-off environment that allows his character dynamics to scintillate. Led by two fantastic lead performances, The Handmaiden is smart, sadistic and sexy as hell.
THE HANDMAIDEN / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: PARK CHAN-WOOK / STARRING: PARK CHAN-WOOK, SYD LIM / STARRING: KIM MIN-HEE, KIM TAE-RI, HA JUNG-WOO, CHO JING-WOONG / RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 17TH
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10