The lavish lesbian thriller does camp as high art, with the devil in the detail
As a loose adaptation of the British novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-Wook wraps the lustful lesbian Victoriana tightly around Korean sensibilities, offering a film as brazenly sexy as it is convoluted.
Con, indeed, is the order of the day, with the detailed plot circling around a pair of scammers attempting to get their hands on an heiress’s fortune, only for the inevitable counter-con to rip its claws into their hustle.
By the time the dust settles, after two hours spent reading colour-coded subtitles in two languages, The Handmaiden leans so heavily into its gilded, byzantine barminess and intoxicatingly self-assured sexuality that you’ll want to watch it again right there and then.
After his foray into Hollywood with the handsome if soulless Stoker, Park returns to his native Korea to produce not only his best film, but a landmark piece of lesbian cinema in the notoriously strait-laced nation. A thrilling take on guile and gullibility, The Handmaiden is a gorgeously creepy chamber piece, its by-the-book set-up stretching to reveal an unapologetically camp psycho-sexual romp, replete with brilliantly funny sight gags and impish performances.
All is not what it seems as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) hatches a plan to seduce and elope with Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a vitamin d-starved recluse living in her uncle’s lavish mansion. To steer her affections in the right direction, the Count has pickpocket Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) infiltrate the house staff as her handmaid, whispering second-hand sweet-nothings into her lady’s ear, but finding her own sexual awakening blossoming as their relationship deepens.
To explain anything further of the plot would do a disservice to how wickedly it unwinds, but suffice it to say the intervening screen time, with its steamy eroticism, physical and psychological torture, wooden sex toys, and ample octopus porn, won’t leave you feeling short changed.
It is an exquisitely made film, with Park poring over every detail on display. The costumes are tailored so perfectly they vaguely threaten BDSM. The corsets and bodices worn by Hideko come with scores of buttons for Sook-Hee to deftly undo, the formalities of Edwardian wardrobe driving forward the intimacy of their unfolding love affair. The architecture of the house, a blend of upwardly-mobile Japanese colonial and European gothic, creates the perfect space for Sarah Waters’ novel to find a new home in Korea’s strict social hierarchy.
Then there’s the sex. In a film like this, particularly for western audiences casting their glance over the lithe naked bodies of its two Asian leads, there is the risk of eroticism giving way to lingering gratuity.
The three scenes on screen certainly don’t shy away from titillation, with even their kissing bordering on teen-disco tongue-mangling. But as the plot reveals itself they take on new meaning, becoming bodily tugs-of-war part of the ongoing con, and emotional battlegrounds for the fate of the two women. Besides, Park is a seasoned enough director to understand that the most seductive scene of all somehow manages to blend Lolita with Marathon Man.
The sexuality of the film doesn’t just stop there, visibly dripping in almost every scene in the grand tradition of Asian cinema; it’s around the time there’re dozens of dismembered penises floating in jars that you’ll really regret bringing your mother to see it.
But there’s sensuality to The Handmaiden too, and for all its labyrinthine lady loving, the fiendish twists give way to plenty of heart as well.
Verdict: A sumptuous blend of high art and indulgent silliness, The Handmaiden is a bodice-ripping romp with substance to match the style
The Handmaiden (18/145mins) is released nationwide on Friday, April 14th.