Maverick Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s movies have always been about unhinged outsiders – be it men (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Cut) or women (Lady Vengeance, I’m A Cyborg but that’s Ok, Stoker) – who operate outside the conventional social dynamics, and invariably end up instigating violent, even operatic, chain reactions. In a fabulous continuation of that thematic trend in his filmography, The Handmaiden is a lush, gorgeously mounted, deliciously twisted and gloriously unpredictable tale with a script that progressively upped its delirious idiosyncrasy like a sumptuous orchestra; it also had Park’s quintessential signature all over in his penchant for gallows humour, shocking violence and outré in general. Adapted from the novel Fingersmith, but the setting transplanted from Victorian-era Britain to colonial-era Japanese-occupied Korea, the film also bristles with subversive political and stirring feminist subtexts, which made this more than just a thriller. The intricately structured gothic tale – where one sees moments from Chapter 1 in a diametrically different light in Chapter 2, before hell starts breaking loose in Chapter 3 – covers the scintillating relationship between the seemingly placid and immensely wealthy heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a closet femme fatale whose life is controlled by her tyrannical japanophile uncle (Cho Jin-woong) whose grotesque perversions know no bounds, and the sassy Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an attractive pickpocket hired by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) to masquerade as Hideko’s maid. The compelling tale of devious one-upmanship and forbidden romance between these two brilliantly etched and marvelously enacted women, in a rigidly patriarchal social construct, was complemented by elaborately designed set-pieces and sumptuous camera work. The hideous octopus, by the way, gleefully referenced the notorious octopus eating sequence in Oldboy.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Romance
Country: South Korea