Today: February 27, 2024

The Handmaiden

Whatever happened to the erotic thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s? Films like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction in which sex and betrayal were the most natural of bedfellows. Perhaps in the era of new feminism such things are considered lewd. They probably shouldn’t be, more often than not these films painted women as having absolute power of the physical cravings of the weaker men. A whole genre of cinema was based around the femme fatale.

So it is with glorious glee that The Handmaiden is, on the surface at least, an erotic thriller, given a period setting and shot with the kind of decadent cinematography normally reserved for obviously award worthy films. But this is a film from Chan-wook Park, he behind films such as Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Stoker. Films that get under your skin, twist a serrated blade and gently remove it before smiling a childlike grin at you as you bleed out onto the floor.

The Handmaiden is no different. Loosely based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is a thief whose mother was hung for the same crime. When her mentor’s associate Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) concocts a plan to seduce and marry the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) Sook-Hee finds herself placed in Hideko’s service as her handmaiden to convince her to marry Fujiwara and escape her perverted uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). And to say anymore would be to ruin a film that never lets you in on the whole story until it wants to.

Park orchestrates the proceedings like a street magician, keeping his cards close to his chest and just as you think you’ve got the trick sussed another ace up the sleeve is revealed. It is deeply seductive in character, erotica and especially themes. For some there will be cries of “Oh, but this is another Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a male director making a lesbian film”. But The Handmaiden refuses to conform to any one genre. Yes, it is often an erotica thriller but it is also a romance, a crime story, a period drama and a film that explores sexual politics without ever giving answers but always posing questions.

With every dark turn, like Oldboy, Park takes you deeper and deeper into the dungeons that fester in the characters’ psyches. Like a Christopher Nolan film there are multiple layers to the narrative going on so just as you think you understand what is happening you are given a little tip-bit of information that alters the entire chessboard of manipulation. Things are elluded to in the books that Uncle Kouzuki collects only to make subtle but jaw-dropping impacts come the ending. Park is a filmmaker who is happy to dispel with “show don’t tell” and replace it with planting a seed in your mind and then letting you bring that terrible plant to screaming life.

The results are darkly delightful. The film builds and builds before leaving you gasping and then finding plot twists to keep you fascinated as to what everyone’s end goals are. The Handmaiden is a film of vast decadence, incredible plotting and characters that are rich enough to give you a stomach ache, something Park would no doubt revel in. Without doubt one of the most engrossing and incredibly satisfying films of the year.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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