Francesca Amoroso tucks into Park Chan-wook’s feast for the eyes to find out if The Handmaiden is satisfying or just a little too much.
An ethereal, near-religious experience, The Handmaiden is a vibrant and expressive story of love and betrayal. Loosely inspired by the Sarah Waters novel, ‘Fingersmith’ and reimagined in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, we witness impoverished Sookee dragged from her family and sent to serve the noble and mysterious Lady Hideko, imprisoned by her grotesquely perverse Uncle on his sprawling and remote estate.
Through a series of delightful flashbacks we become aware of the various layers of deception within this simple narrative; all is not what it seems. Sookee is secretly the descendant of a notorious con-artist and following in the footsteps of her mother, she is hired by ‘The Count’ to help with his plot to seduce and marry Hideko, abandon her in a madhouse and enjoy her vast fortune.
Entrenched with a delightful sense of Hitchockian mystery, we are continually fed false information by distrustful characters, who seem to smirk with secrecy at some unspoken truth that we are not yet privy to. Director Park Chan-wook keeps us engaged in a game of considerable guesswork, always one step behind and last to fully understand the many conflicting and hidden agendas at play.
This undercurrent of desperate deception is embodied by Chan-wook’s camera; it is emphatic and urgent, snaking in and around our players to uncover the truth and lies within the present and past lives of the mansion’s inhabitants. There are visceral moments of push and pull, the camera slowly focusing in on minute details, panning back to show the entire scene before abruptly switching to an entirely different angle, that reveals an unexpected warp in mood and narrative implications.
The film has a dynamic rhythm, it ebbs and flows, builds in a crescendo, retching and tearing at your innermost fears and desires before finding its triumphant climax. Like a passionate love affair, you are in constant fear of the truth behind obvious duplicities, are wary of a sudden and cavalier betrayal but above all and in spite of all, hope that love will eventually prevail.
The gratuitous and many exploitations of sexuality within the film have been widely debated, seen as either a refreshingly open and feminine expression of lesbian love or as the sordid fantasies of the male sexual psyche. The blurred, unsure distinctions and constant balance and imbalance between both interpretations is where the film demands most of its audience; they must gauge their own moral character and decide: At what point does a physical manifestation of condemned love descend into perverse and excessive sadism? When do images of female empowerment become those of exploitation? There is no simple answer; Chan-wook merely invites us to decide for ourselves.
The vehement passion that permeates every physical expression of love, hate and desire within The Handmaiden creates a complex narrative filled with complex characters, that are just as vicious and debase as one another, pursuing their own pleasure at all costs and any expense.
If anything, its main flaw is its unfortunate finale that feels slightly predictable and clichéd compared to the satisfying opacity of the rest of the film. However, overall the medley of sexual and moral confusion, the beautifully erotic and disgustingly violent imagery, embeds a certain feeling that remains with you. It is a film that is ripe with an endless supply of spectacular voyeurism for you to savour in and remember. Despite its imperfections, it is a carnal tour de force that leaves you kneeling and penitent at the sanctimonious altar of love, never failing to simultaneously mesmerise, excite and repulse.
The Handmaiden is out now in select cinemas.