The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

What's it about? A con-man (Ha Jung-woo) gets a young thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to masquerade as a handmaiden to a sheltered, wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) as part of a plot to cheat her of her inheritance. Things get complicated when Sookee starts to have feelings for her mistress. And that's just the first half-hour.


Is it any good? I suppose this should be described as an erotic thriller, given the sexual content and twisty nature of the plot. But that does it a disservice because in the hands of Park, this is a much more sensual, artistic take on some standard potboiler elements. Yes, there are shock revelations, steamy sex scenes and octopus porn, but it's also a gorgeous, intricately assembled piece of arthouse theatre. It's a film that requires a bit of attention to keep abreast (snigger) of events, shifting perspectives to revisit key scenes and explain some odd moments,forcing us to re-evaluate what we have already seen in light of new information. Throughout, the Hitchcockian vibes Park brought to his last film Stoker are also in play here, with voyeurism, emotional manipulation, sexual obsession and deep secrets all playing integral parts in the story. These elements are further emphasised by the fetishisation of costumes/props, as well as the rich set design, the architecture of which gives natural framing to the immaculate shot compositions. It all adds up to a heady, sexy cocktail, helped along by excellent, brave (ie often buck-naked) performances from the two lead actresses as the central relationship deepens. It's an impressive, lurid melodrama that probably will require a second viewing. In its entirety, not just the lady-love bits, you filthy beggar.

Anything else I should know? Based on the acclaimed book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, which is set in Victorian England, so the transition to a film set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s might not be immediately apparent. However, articles here and here give interesting insights from both Park and Waters about the adaptation process. Elsewhere the debate about whether the sex scenes are gratuitous or not and whether a male director can ever do justice to lesbian lovemaking has inevitably led to much (hairy)hand-wringing.

What does the Fonz think? Exotica Erotica.

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