Set in Korea in the 1930s, The Handmaiden has petty thief Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) employed as handmaiden to the mentally unstable Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a Japanese heiress to a fortune who has never been off the property, owned by her uncle Kouzuki (Jo). Sook-hee is there under false pretences: she’s to help scoundrel Fujiwara (Ha), posing as a Count, in seducing Hideko, inheriting her vast fortune before condemning her to a madhouse in Japan. But Sook-hee can’t help but be drawn to the lonely and kind Hideko…
With his slow pace, period setting and love story, this loose adaptation of crime novel Fingersmith is initially a world away from Chan-wook Park’s most famous outing, Oldboy (and its bookends, Sympathy For Mister Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) but the Korean writer-director can't help himself, eventually letting the story descend into the murky depths of deception, deceit, double-cross, manipulation, violence and sado-masochism. Despite proceedings getting increasingly ugly as time progresses, the cinematography remains beautiful with Park's camera taking in the luxurious house and its lush surroundings. He can move to extreme close ups (lips) to wide, to gentle tracking shots to handheld willy-nilly and the effect is deliberately off-setting.
Off-setting too is the out-of-the-blue tendency for characters to swear, or the strange developments that Kouzuki engages in. Split into three parts, the second chapter full of twists and revelations that offers an entirely different perspective on the events in the first, keeps the audience unsure of there are more twists afoot and who can be trusted.
At first it looks like Park overlooks a glaring plot hole in that there's not enough proof to suggest that Hideko is insane, but then one has to remind oneself that this is 1930s and a husband can declare his wife mad and commit her without much corroborating evidence. It's this theme – oppression and manipulation – that binds the narrative; the story is set during Japan's colonisation of Korea, there's the upper class manipulation of the lower class, the visual motif of the puppet, and of course women's subservience to men. Uncle Kouzuki's desire to pass himself off as Japanese hints at our wishes to accept wishes of overlords and stay in the roles they have given us. If the story is light on incident, thematically there's a lot going on here.