Review: The Handmaiden – visually sumptuous

An absolute darling of last year‘s film festivals, The Handmaiden has finally been graced with a general release across the UK. Can it live up to the hype, or will it fall tragically flat…

The Handmaiden is the latest film directed by Chan-wook Park and is an adaptation of the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. The story has been transported from Victorian London to nineteenth century Korea, and the film draws attention to the location change in gorgeous set dressing which emphasises a fusion between East and West. The majority of the film takes place in a large, sprawling mansion, half of it resembling western gothic architecture, the other a luxurious Japanese home.

The story follows Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) who collaborates with a con-artist to defraud a Japanese heiress. Sook-Hee travels to the house of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) who lives with her uncle. He is a strange and unnerving figure who collects rare books and who has trained Hideko to be his assistant, giving readings to him and his friends. Sook-Hee becomes Hideko’s handmaiden and gradually becomes involved in the strange world that she inhabits. To say much more about the plot would involve giving away the crux of the narrative; the joy of this film is its storytelling. Park is able to pull off a fantastic twist ending without destabilising the events we have witnessed.

‘Park is able to pull off a fantastic twist ending without destabilising the events we have witnessed.’

The film has garnered a certain amount of attention, and criticism, for its sex scenes, which have been called gratuitous and used to fetishize the romance between the two leads. Though I would certainly say that the framing of these scenes is directed by the male gaze, this is in accordance with the tone of the rest of the film which has a voyeuristic feel to it, constantly depicting characters peeking through keyholes and through the cracks in doors. The film is visually sumptuous. The costumes are beautiful and characters illustrate their shifts in identity through the putting on and taking off of outfits.

This is a film which I found very interesting, both visually and thematically. It is at moments funny and shockingly violent. The switch in tones is never jarring, but keeps the audience engaged and excited.

Xa Rodger

(Image courtesy of PR and The Guardian)

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