As a huge fan of Chan-Wook Park's work and a huge fan of Sarah Water's novel Fingersmith, I had high hopes for Park's South Korean adaptation of this ingenious erotic thriller, and I was not disappointed. Park's transposition of the story from Victorian London to 1930s occupied Korea works brilliantly well, while remaining faithful to the construction and emotional arc of the original text. This is a personal and creative but respectful adaptation at its finest. Park's embellishments only serve to further enhance the thematic concerns of the original, and help create a sensory experience of rare delight.
The novel and film begin with a con. The suave Fujiwara poses as a Count to woo the naive heiress Hideko, sending in his ally Sook-hee to pose as her maid and help win Hideko over. The plan is for Fujiwara to woo Hideko, elope with her, take her fortune and then lock her up in an asylum. But the plans become complicated when the maid, Sook-hee, develops feelings for her mistress - feelings that are apparently reciprocated. But just how innocent are all the parties involved? What exactly has Hideko's tyrannical uncle been training her to read in his heavily guarded library. And just how will Fujiwara and Sook-hee go to gain a fortune? To say more of the plot would be to ruin one of the most finely and elegantly constructed novels I've read. Suffice to say that fans of its intrigue won't be disappointed, and that even if you know the big reveals, you'll still be on the edge of your seat.
What can I safely say to lure you into watching this film? It's a visual delight. The production design of the Uncle's half English Victorian country house/ half Japanese lodge is stunning. I want to watch the film again just to admire its furnishings. The costumes are lavish and necessary to give a sense of the ritual nature and eroticism of dressing and undressing another person in this world. The acting is top notch - balancing real erotic intensity with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. And Park Chan-Wook extends the novel's obsessions around class, visual identity and possession seamlessly into the world of imperial Korea - where the Japanese are seen as the arbiters of taste, to be flattered and imitated. I even loved the elegant solution of having a film in which who uses which language and when - Japanese or Korean - is so important by rendering each language into differently coloured subtitles.
This is arguably Park's most audacious film since OLDBOY and his most stunningly beautiful since LADY VENGEANCE. It's a film that shocks, astounds and overwhelms, and deserves a second viewing at the very least. A tour de force in every respect.
THE HANDMAIDEN has a running time of 144 minutes. The movie played Cannes, Toronto and London 2016. It opened earlier this year in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Czech Republic, South Korae, Estonia, Russia and Polanbd, It opens in the USA on October 21st, in Canada on October 28th, in France on November 2nd, in Hungary on December 1st and in the UK on February 17th 2017.