There’s a lush, operatic quality to Park Chan-wook’s movies, whether they’re dealing with vampires (2009’s Thirst) or bitter tales of revenge (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy). The director brings his unwavering eye for minute detail to The Handmaiden, a deliciously lurid thriller which takes Sarah Waters’ British novel, Fingersmith, and moves it to 1940s Korea.
At first, it looks as though we’re in for an intimate little chamber piece about a demure handmaiden, her wealthy young Japanese mistress and the latter’s suitor, a handsome nobleman who teaches her how to draw and paint. A passionate love triangle develops between them; Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) are engaged to marry, yet a frisson of sexual chemistry grows between the wealthy woman and her maid, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri).
Much of the movie takes place in one stately home – an odd amalgam of Victorian brick and Japanese wood and paper; a symbol of its owner’s fondness for English and Japanese culture. The house belongs to an ornery old man who, against the backdrop of Japan’s occupation of Korea, remains holed up in his private library of rare and expensive books. But here, nothing is quite as it seems; the movie’s structure is broken up into three parts, each offering different perspectives on the same characters and events, and each cheerfully upending everything we think we’ve learned from the last.
Like all great thrillers, The Handmaiden’s various turns are surprising yet entirely logical in retrospect; and just when we think we have a handle on where things are going, the story takes a lurching fall down a mineshaft into some very dark continents of human appetite. In some respects, The Handmaiden makes David Fincher’s Gone Girl look like an episode of Scooby Doo; it’s the kind of subversive, full-blooded and straight-up saucy kind of thing that Paul Verhoeven would appreciate.
The effect is vaguely akin to a gothic novel like Wuthering Heights in its story of repressed desires and secret obsessions, albeit laced with explicit sex scenes and the odd dab of violence that would have left the Bronte sisters blushing into their handkerchiefs. At first, it isn’t obvious where Park’s heady concoction is taking us, but – without giving too much away – The Handmaiden gradually reveals itself as pointed (and blackly funny) parable about the repression of female sexuality.
As sublimely shot and designed as all Chan-wook’s films, The Handmaiden feels subtly different in its approach to his earlier work. Some of the Hitchcockian camera moves and cuts are still present, but the direction is more formal in its lighting and framing. Married to Cho Young-wuk’s sumptuous score, the film has a elegant, classy tone, even as it descends into some decidedly black, startling places. The acting is superb, too, particularly the Kim Tae-ri’s handmaiden and the object of her desire. The former’s innocent-looking yet hilariously unrefined; the latter doll-like but far more tough and resilient than she first appears.
The Handmaiden’s a tough film to pick apart because a) there’s so little to criticise and b) it’s too easy to spoil everything that’s brilliant about it. The third section has some magnificent pay-offs and, in the final scene, a plot point that might just sum up the meaning of the whole film: an object of punishment becomes a symbol of sexual liberation. A feminist thriller akin to the Wachowskis’ Unbound or artful exploitation? We’d go for the former. The antithesis of an empty-calorie flick like Fifty Shades, The Handmaiden is a magnificent, even flawless piece of cinema.
The Handmaiden is out in UK cinemas on the 14th April.