Handmaiden: Park Chan-Wook Erotic Thriller, One of Year’s Best Foreign Films

One of the year’s best foreign language films, Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden represents an artist at the top of his form, a stunning feature that is a career-summatin.


Densely textured and gorgeously realized, The Handmaiden is an art film that operates effectively on many levels, as a Gothic thriller, a a revenge melodrama, and a perverse love story with strong sexual and violent overtones.

This should not come as a surprise from the South Korean director (previously a film critic), who has already won critical acclaim for his previous features, Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and Thirst.  Park stumbled with his English-speaking debut, Stoker, but placed in the overall context of his output, it’s a minor aggravation.


What is most surprising about the new film is its literary source material, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a 2002 novel, which had previously been made into a 2005 British miniseries.

Park has shrewdly transplanted the original tale into the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by the Japanese. (The distributor has made it easier for us to apprehend the dialogue, using different colors for the subtitles as they switch from Korean to Japanese).

Structurally, the narrative is divided into three parts, each told from a different perspective, often centering on similar events as seen from the subjective POV of the main protagonists.  But rest assured that in the end, the disparate panels add up to a highly unified structure, intricately composed of individual scenes and images that are nothing short of brilliant.


This Handmaiden is hand-made (to play on words), displaying its formalist style in a strikingly smooth and subtle mode.

The protagonist is a spirited female pickpocket named Sooki, actually named Tamako ( Kim Tae-ri), who gets a job as a handmaiden at the estate of a rich collector (Lee Yong-nyeo).  She is hired to serve him and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the young and beautiful niece of the old man’s late wife.


Initially, she is unaware of the greedy scheme into which she is pulled.  A fake count (Ha Jung-woo) plans to marry the niece and then have her committed to an asylum so that he can claim her fortune.

Appearances deceive, and nothing and no one is what he or she seems to be. The bogus count is a snob, claiming, “I’m not interested in money itself. What I really desire is the manner of ordering wine without looking at the price.” Later we find out that he was raised by a Korean fisherman but pretends to be Japanese; he calls himself Fujiwara.


But he is not the only one engaged in manipulative scheming.  The elderly book collector, the fake count’s mentor, harbors similar plans in mind.

The plan spirals out of control, when Sooki/Tamako falls in love with her target. At first, their bond is based on intimate interactions and discreet confessions, but then it grows into a more explicitly erotic affair, leading to several startlingly blunt sexual scenes between the two femmes (equaling and in some ways surpassing the intensity of the lesbian sex scenes in the French film, Blue is the Warmest Color).


Unfolding as an intricate puzzle, defying viewers expectations.  A good deal of the narrative moves forward without dialogue, through subtle glances, overheard remarks, eavesdropping behind walls or semi-open doors, and reaction shots.

Of the three characters, the most mysterious is Lady Hideko, a woman who was raised from girlhood as a prisoner by the book collector.  She begins as a fragile naïve woman who, due to her being locked in this huge estate and its gardens, has had limited experience with the outside world.


Densely plotted, The Handmaiden is full of twists and turns in the ways that characters interact with one another and in the speed and facility at which they change (and/or conceal) their identities and/or reveal hidden desires.


It’s never clear, for example, whether the characters are spying on each other in earnest or in secrecy, as those spied-upon are sometimes aware of being watching, which leads them to further modifying of their intents and behaviors.

Lush in imagery, which is expressionistic to the point of being surreal, audacious in its frankly sexual scenes, eccentric and singular in vision, and occasionally perverse in storytelling and characterization, The Handmaiden is one of a kind film, an unabashedly art work that deserves multiple viewings to savor its numerous merits.


End Note:

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), of which I am a member, has just named The Handmaiden the year’s best foreign language film.  It also won best production design for its gorgeously lush settings.