The 50 top films of 2017 in the UK: No 6 The Handmaiden

Continuing our countdown of the year’s finest films, Peter Bradshaw praises Park Chan-wook’s dazzling film about a lesbian love affair in 1930s Korea

Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith has had a lavish, almost operatically spectacular adaptation by the Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, which isolates and intensifies the keynote of eroticism. The sexuality drenches the superbly designed fixtures, fittings and fabrics of this film and perfumes the intoxicating air that all the characters breathe.

This is, arguably, disproportionate to the more nuanced effect intended and achieved by Waters, but it makes for a luxurious movie, and Park handles with aplomb the story’s whiplash narrative twist and resulting POV shift.

The original novel’s setting of Victorian London is now transplanted to Korea in the 1930s. A confidence trickster and predatory seducer who styles himself as “Count” Fujiwara takes over the life of a young thief named Sook-hee, and gets her to inveigle herself into the house of a lonely young heiress named Lady Hideko, becoming her handmaiden.

Watch a clip from The Handmaiden

The point of this is, of course, so the pampered young woman will fall for the spurious count, but as the two women become close, it seems to be they who are falling in love instead. The tension between them is all but unbearable, especially as Hideko is being abused by her uncle and guardian: a grotesque satyr of perverse indulgence and porn connoisseurship.

The twists and turns of the story are dazzling, and the film sometimes feels like an intricately jewelled and mirrored prop that might be used by a stage magician of a distant age. It is a glitteringly strange and sexy film.

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Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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