From South Korea’s provocateur and sensual stylist extraordinaire Park Chan-wook comes The Handmaiden, a stunning if somewhat strained fetish revenge tale set in 1930s Korea. Following 2013’s Hitchcockian horror-thriller Stoker, Park’s latest continues to plumb female sexuality and the female experience of sex with men absent, and The Handmaiden is all the more effective when it maps these territories so seldomly shown in mainstream cinema.
Adapted from Sarah Waters’ historical novel from 2002––with the location moved from the Victorian-era to the Japanese colonialist rule of Korea––Park’s reworking of the source material is exceptionally well-suited and still contains his signature jet-black comedy and octopus predilection.
At first blush the Handmaiden introduces us to a pickpocket named Sook-hee played by Kim Tai-ri who is hired by a charlatan named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo).
The Count wants Sook-hee to become the maid of a mentally unstable heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in a sketchy ploy to usurp her fortune but, as the two women’s lives intersect they fall in love. To give away anymore plot details would ruin the damnable fun of this transgressive romp, suffice it to say there’s several Rashomon-like reveals and revelations amidst the explicit sex and savagery.
Slit into three chapters, The Handmaiden does feel a little overlong due to a slack second act but the impeccable production design and art direction from Ryu Seong-hie is immersive and imposing while the expert lensing from cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon ranks with the year’s best, ensuring that there’s always a lot to soak in when not being alternately aroused or repulsed.
As far as sexually liberating thrillers go, The Handmaiden is a mischievous mingling of sexploitation and vile revenge that epitomizes excessive entertainment.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.