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No matter the continent or time period one should never get involved in psychosexual mind games with posh people. It’ll only lead to some kind of exquisite grief.
Anyone familiar with Park Chan Wook’s work will know that his films are a blend of stylish visuals, humour, violence and intricate plots. Many will be familiar with his English language film; the family drama Stoker or his breakout/masterpiece revenge thriller Oldboy. Love him or hate him, he’s a filmmaker that makes big choices. The Handmaiden, a movie laced with intrigue, sex and menace, continues in this vein while staging all the extremity in a buttoned down, laced up, period setting.
Based on Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ the plot is relocated from Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea. Sook-Hee, a Korean petty thief becomes a handmaiden to a Japanese countess in order to aid a con man’s scheme to seduce and defraud the cooped up, loopy, posh bird. Thus the psychosexual mind games begin. The result is something that is silly, creepy and very sexy all at once.
The direction alternates between restraint and wild abandon. You never know when the characters’ masks will slip and the next bout of kink will arrive. Similarly you can’t quite tell when the camera will suddenly burst free from the laws of physics and zoom us through one of the decadent sets. The Handmaiden also has the Korean knack for effortlessly shifting tone and there are more than a few unexpected gags nestled comfortably in all the earnest, high stakes melodrama.
It’s a film very interested in elaborate facades. We are treated to separate voice overs giving us the only honest insights into what the various players’ true motivations are. The main location is a mansion that is itself a fusion of faux English and faux Japanese architecture. The gothic exterior is built over a near comically Freudian basement. Characters, too, don identities as part of various, labyrinthine grifts. They switch between personas, cultures, races and languages. The decision to make one lead Korean and one Japanese adds an extra dimension to the play acting with coloniser and colonised engaging in some geopolitical sub/dom hijinks.
The scenes of sexual tension are all the more effective because they feel like a flirty, role playing sex game. It’s well aware of the performative aspect of seduction and critical of it at the same time. One scene, involving a group of male voyeurs enjoying a staged, pseudo sex act can be read as interrogating male desire but also the audience in general. It’s all a very sexy mask and we’re all the dumber for being repulsed and intrigued by it.
This is a story that involves a servant bathing her mistress ‘like a baby’ before offering her thumb to suck so as to soothe a toothache. It features Sook-Hee noting that ‘Ladies truly are the dolls of maids’ as she dresses and undresses her boss. There’s also a pivotal moment shown from the POV of a vagina. So, no, it’s not exactly subtle. It’s a film that you may start out thinking of as daft but, if it is, it’s daft in such a fancy, thoughtful way. As the plot moves forwards the information we’re fed makes us recontextualise what we’ve already seen. We, too, have been duped but, as we realise the grift, it feels like watching something unexpected, intricate and gorgeous unfurl in front of us.
This is restrained until it’s bananas, it’s dumb until it’s clever and it’s disgusting until it’s sweet. If you let yourself be seduced and just go along for the ride you’ll find that The Handmaiden rules.
The Handmaiden is in cinemas from Friday 14th April.
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