The Handmaiden review – a ripe, erotic tale

Park Chan-wook refashions Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith into a perverse psychodrama that wrongfoots you at every turn

There are giddy pleasures to be found in this rip-roaringly ripe erotic thriller/melodrama from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook. Inspired by Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is a playfully provocative tale of seduction, desire and deceit. Slyly undermining stereotypes of fall guys and femmes fatales (this is more Bound than Basic Instinct), Park’s film takes great delight in wrong-footing its audience, peeling away layers of mesmerising misdirection with delicious cinematic sleight of hand. As the serpentine narrative spirals back and forth upon itself, we witness the same events from multiple perspectives, each one more revealing than the last.

In Waters’s novel (adapted as a BBC mini-series in 2005), an accomplished pickpocket is plucked from a Dickensian den to work in an upmarket home where she plays a key role in a scheme to separate a young heiress from her fortune. Park transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Here, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is enlisted by elegant conman “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to serve at the home of Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee).

Variously named “Tamako” and “Okju”, the mercurial Sook-hee must ensure that the naive Hideko falls in love with Fujiwara, enabling him to elope with her before swiftly committing the poor innocent to an asylum. His partner in crime will share the spoils, robbing Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki of the handsome fortune he planned to inherit. Yet few of these characters are entirely what they seem, with role-playing, recitation, and unexpected reversals lurking at every corner, leaving us wondering just who exactly is “naive, and a bit foolish”.

The house in which this labyrinthine psychodrama plays out is a strange and mysterious hybrid, part western gothic mansion (there are shades of both The Haunting and Rebecca in its shadowy facade), part palatial Japanese residence. Within its lavishly sinister corridors we find rooms within rooms, spaces between the public and the private, the liminal and the subliminal. In one corridor, a symbolic snake stands guard, pointedly marking “the bounds of knowledge”. Down in the basement, something tentacular writhes, pulsating to the perverse rhythms of a library of Sadean pornographic writings. Meanwhile, out in the rolling grounds, the spectre of a dead aunt haunts the branches of the cherry trees, causing one inhabitant to wonder: “Did the big house make her go mad?”

After the Hitchcockian twists and skin-prickling Freudian symbolism of his first English-language feature Stoker, Park returns to the grand theatricality of his “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) with this fugue-like romp, which is by turns bitingly wry and pleasingly ribald. There’s a tactile fetishism to the ornate set designs, rich furnishings and lavish costumes (“all these buttons for my amusement”), while a profusion of shoes clutter the living space of a lady who, ironically, has nowhere to go.

Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s widescreen frame makes the most of this artefact-laden visual feast, while Cho Young-wuk’s score swoops and surges its way around the action, amplifying Park’s maximalist aesthetic.

While Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour was criticised by source author Julie Maroh for its porn-inflected “display of so-called lesbian sex”, The Handmaiden has been enthusiastically embraced by Sarah Waters as a valid interpretation of the subversive sexuality of her novel. In a recent Guardian interview she praised Park’s film for remaining “very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires” while simultaneously deconstructing those traditions. In one arrestingly weird scene, a theatrical reading from a work of allegedly erotic literature is illustrated with the aid of a giant marionette, providing an absurdist tableau which leaves its ridiculous male spectators frantically fanning their red faces and squirming awkwardly in their seats.

“Tell me, what is it that men want, at night?” Hideko asks innocently, a question to which The Handmaiden offers a piercingly satirical response. Just as the narrative plays with ideas of national colonialism, so the film’s female protagonists strive to find a space of their own, beyond the boundaries of stories told by men.

As for Park, he clearly relishes the opportunity to tie his audience up in knots, engaging them in a carefully choreographed game of cat-and-mouse, which his well-chosen cast play to a T. Despite the daunting running time, the film flies by in a breathless whirl of cinematic exuberance.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ghost in the Shell; The Handmaiden; Viceroy’s House and more – review
Carnal pleasures and clever plotting combine in Park Chan-wook’s thrilling The Handmaiden, while Scarlett Johansson is a woman of steel

Guy Lodge

06, Aug, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Devil All the Time review – deliciously ripe gothic melodrama
Antonio Campos delivers a star-studded, darkly comic psychological thriller set in the postwar American Bible belt

Mark Kermode

13, Sep, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best US films of 2016: No 9 – The Handmaiden
As our countdown moves into the final fortnight, Peter Bradshaw welcomes a dazzling and sexy adaptation of Sarah Waters’s story about lesbian love

Peter Bradshaw

06, Dec, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Nocturnal Animals review – Tom Ford’s seductive cautionary tale
This stylish psychodrama is a skilful synthesis of the mood of Hitchock, the skewed reality of Lynch and Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail

Mark Kermode

06, Nov, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Eye in the Sky review – a morality tale of modern warfare
Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren star in Gavin Hood’s nail-biting thriller that explores the ethics of drone strikes

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

17, Apr, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
It Chapter Two review – funhouse theatrics with little emotional punch
This carnivalesque sequel throws in shocks aplenty and homages to horror classics, but it lacks depth and precision

Mark Kermode

08, Sep, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
It review – enthusiastic, cine-literate retelling of Stephen King’s horror novel
The first in a two-part adaptation of the killer clown book has a soft spot for its troubled young heroes

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

10, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Baby Driver review – boy racer hits all the right notes
A young getaway driver’s playlist helps him stay in the fast lane in Edgar Wright’s exhilarating car-chase thriller musical

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

02, Jul, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Jason Bourne review – triumphant return of the strong, silent type
Matt Damon reunites with Paul Greengrass for a head-spinning, post-Snowden cyber-thriller

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

31, Jul, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
You Were Never Really Here review – a hitman with a conscience?
Lynne Ramsay’s fourth film is a nightmarish vision of a killer’s quest for redemption

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

11, Mar, 2018 @9:00 AM