Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) may be a petty thief in Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, but she knows a thing or two about forgeries and frauds. She currently makes her living looking after babies who have been abandoned, so they may be sold to rich couples who want a child; she believes this to be a benevolent act, since otherwise the infants would grow up in poverty, so at least with this arrangement they get a chance in life. But then one of her bosses, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), meets her with a proposal to pull off one of the biggest and most potentially lucrative frauds she has ever been involved with. The idea is to infiltrate the household of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) by posing as her maid, telling him all, and then he will swoop...
He will do this by pretending to be Lady Hideko's suitor, then when she agrees to marry him, she can be safely bundled away into a mental asylum for the rest of her like while Fujiwara divides up the spoils of her fortune, giving himself the lion's share. Yet what he does not count on is Sook-Hee growing closer to the noblewoman, and that affection being returned in kind, resulting in director Chan-wook Park's movie quickly gaining a reputation as that South Korean girl-on-girl action flick rather than the lavish historical thriller it was, though to be fair it could have been described as both. Indeed, the sex scenes were somewhat overstated in their exposure, that was to say, plenty was exposed, but they took up around five minutes or so of the experience.
Nevertheless, they were significantly more detailed than many audiences were anticipating in spite of the adults only certificates The Handmaiden won across the globe, and there were suspicions they were simply gratuitous, yet Park took them very seriously, penning this adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith with a woman, Jeong Seo-kyeong, to balance out his masculine instincts, and discussing the material with lesbians to make sure he was not going the sexploitation route. Still, with all that mind, the old saying about pornography versus erotica rarely felt more relevant when the arthouse opted to depict the sexual act; this was aiming for the latter, but there was always going to be a sense of the former no matter how it was presented.
Perhaps the secret was in what was surrounding the sex scenes, and in this case it began looking like a meditation on class, the haves versus the have nots, as poor Sook-Hee is plunged into this moneyed world and likes what she sees, as this is far from her usual haunts, Lady Hideko's English-Japanese mansion house the most expensive surroundings she has ever seen, never mind lived in. Yet there are hints all may not be as they seem when our heroine, who really should be a conniving minx at best, is notably gauche when it comes to performing her undercover role, we keep thinking she will slip up thanks to her untutored manners and the way she is almost giving the game away in conversation. In fact, it only Hideko's loneliness that appears to be keeping Sook-Hee in her good books, well, that and the almighty shag they enjoy.
Naturally, we are correct in our assessment that a twist is coming up, for we are only an hour into a two-and-a-half-hour film so there would reasonably have to be more to this than the plan going swimmingly and that was that. Precisely what that twist was revealed itself as merely the second uncovering of a series of deceptions that the characters are springing on one another, and it is there you realise that this was as much about gender as it was about class, in that the males, the sexually dominant personas, are the upper classes while the females, expected to take the submissive position, are the lower classes in this society. This was why that steamy romance was important, as it represented the women's rebellion, not simply against the strict gender rules they are under, but against the domination of men who, as we see, use them for pleasure and profit (there's a sinister cult involved later in the film). Therefore these were rebel girls we were watching, especially in this historical context, and that made the back and forth in the plot as we lose our place in who to trust very compelling. It did meander in the middle, but recovered for a part gruesome, part triumphant finale. Music by Jo Yeong-wook.
[In the UK, there are three versions available on disc from Curzon:
Standard DVD/Blu-ray – Theatrical Cut
Special Edition 2 disc Blu-ray – Theatrical & Extended Cut + EXTRAS / Disc 1: Theatrical Cut + Interview with Park Chan-wook (60mins) Disc 2: Extended Cut + Making of The Handmaiden, Cannes Premiere, Cast Interviews
Controversial Korean director with a strong visual sense. Made his debut in 2000 with the powerful political thriller JSA, which dealt with the divide between North and South Korea. Follow-up Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a gruelling tale of revenge, and Park contributed to the human rights anthology If You Were Me. Oldboy was another acclaimed revenge movie, while Cut was Park's entry into the Asian horror anthology Three... Extremes. In 2005, Park completed his 'revenge trilogy' with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. He received mixed reviews for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, with his modern day vampire story Thirst seen as a major return to form. His first English-language work was the reserved horror drama Stoker which he followed with arthouse hit The Handmaiden.