In most press interviews for The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook will mention one particular scene. This moment - the key detail that compelled him to adapt Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith for the big screen - involves a bath filled with rose petals. Park recalled how he could practically smell the intoxicating aroma emanating from the warm bath on the book’s pages, and wished others could experience this moment for themselves. He’s certainly achieved this, and much more, in bringing this cerebral novel to the screen.
Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young woman in Japanese occupied Korea, is hired by the dapper ‘Count Fujiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo) to be maid to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the mysterious noblewoman whose inheritance he wishes to steal. He changes her name to ‘Tamako’ and plants her in a sprawling mansion filled with opulence and wealth - all heavy dark wood paneling and suppressing masculinity - owned by Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a smarmy older gentleman whose insatiable appetite for antique erotica, combined with his questionable history, possibly contributed to his late wife’s suicide.
It doesn’t take long for mistress and maid to fall in lust, and their long wistful gazes and gasps of breath are soon replaced by some of the most extraordinarily explicit sapphic sex scenes of recent years. In these incredible, unhinged moments we see two women playing with each other like dolls, trussing one other up like some ritual in a game of fetishistic foreplay, and devouring each other like hungry animals, all skin and hair and bodily fluids unflinchingly exposed.
Yet The Handmaiden is much more than what some may refer to as filthy erotica or porn parody. A multilayered piece of storytelling, the story is split into two halves with spiraling plots and multiple viewpoints: Hideko and Fuijiwara secretly plotting to run away, the two women growing closer until their desire overspills into the aforementioned scenes, and Hideki turning the tables on both her uncle and her betrothed. Park takes pleasure in our confusion and rather than diminishing the films’ effect, we find ourselves thrilled with the anticipation of what could happen next.
The costumes are extraordinary: exquisite gowns detailed with dozens of tiny buttons from neckline to torso, white lace gloves, kimonos in rich jewel colours that are usually associated with wicked witches and evil queens. Then you have the Victorian bodices with their intricate tiny buttons - so delicate and fine and careful, reflecting the dual aspects of the film and its characters.
The Handmaiden is a funny, dirty, sexy and completely unique film that manages to be hugely fun while being smart and bold.