LFF 2016: Park Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters's sapphic thriller with mixed results
Park Chan-wook follows up his exceptional 2013 English-language debut Stoker with a return to his native Korea for this loose adaptation of Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith. Infusing the sapphic intrigue of Waters's story with his own inimitable style, The Handmaiden is part romance, part gothic fairy tale and part psychosexual chamber piece, an initially beguiling film whose heavy-handed love scenes work to undermine its dramatic power.
Park's screenplay (co-written with Chung Seo-Kyung) moves the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea during the period of Japanese occupation. Lowly thief Sook-Hee (brilliant newcomer Kim Tae-ri) is hired to pose as a maid to wealthy Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) – who lives in fear of her sadistic Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) – with the sole purpose of convincing Hideko to marry cruel confidence trickster Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). But when Sook-Hee and Hideko discover a mutual passion, plans soon change.
Chan-wook is a long-time purveyor of elaborate escapism and he brings this fantastical approach to The Handmaiden. It is bravura filmmaking, not least in terms of its extended and explicit lesbian sex which is presented as an artistic portrayal of love but unavoidably plays like male-gaze porn. These sequences overpower the more intriguing aspects of the narrative, and even the fact that all of the male characters are desperately flawed is not enough of a balance.
A great deal of the film feels cold and contrived, but that's likely as much to do with the period as direction or design. This is a world in which everyone is wearing a mask of respectability, where passion, violence and depravity lie hidden behind the most chaste of exteriors. Still, amidst all of this duplicity and artifice, the emotion between Sook-Hee and Hideko is vibrant and real. It's just a shame that their compelling romance is overwhelmed by the heightened machinations of a convoluted plot.
Screened as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 17 Feb.