by Ringo Le @ringole
South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s newest film The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s pulp crime drama Fingersmith reset in 1930s Korea and Japan, is his most sensual, lavish, and meticulous to date.
Handmaiden is the story of an illiterate peasant girl (Kim Tae-ri) named Nam Sook-hee who is also the film’s narrator. She is hired to be the servant girl of wealthy Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) whose palatial Korean home sets the tone for the wealth the Japanese possessed in 1930s Korea. Soon we learn that the person who actually took the peasant girl into the colonial estate to be a servant is none other than a Korean golddigger posing as a Japanese count named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). This is where the story unfolds into a game of who’s manipulating whom. With an uncanny resemblance to 1920’s Japanese-American movie star Sessue Hayakawa, our Fujiwara sets off a chain of events that further complicates things. But ominously overseeing all of this may be Lady Hideko’s caretaker and uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) whose sadism is not only endless, his stories of sex and torture are shelved in his library. But as soon as we are made to believe that Fujiwara has the upper hand over the heiress and her servant girl, the narrative shifts stealthily to another character’s mindset, shifting perspectives.
At two-and-a-half hours, this film is more languidly shot and leisurely paced than Park’s previous directing efforts. And this is his first return to Korean cinema since 2011’s Thirst. The production design and attention to period detail of the era is impeccable. And though the story tries to cover new ground, some are outside Park Chan-wook’s previous milieu. It is feminist and degrading at the same time, which may be its very intention. What the first two acts build the third act kind of lets down as Park Chan-wook retreats to familiar Korean revenge-style fantasy. But at the end of the day, who walks away the true winner of this story may be for the viewer to decide.
To call Fingersmith itself a cult hit among lesbians throughout this writer's social circle, if not the world, is an understatement. And Park has done justice to the material by giving it such a lavish and elaborate treatment. The story, set in three parts/ perspectives, unfolds in a Rashomon-style fashion. Each segment provides more information to counterbalance what we’ve seen in the last part to bring the story to a conclusion as a whole. That is the brilliance with this particular filmmaking. Its parts are subjective while letting the viewer reach their own objective with the totality of the story as a whole.