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Film review: The Handmaiden – Park Chan-wook’s lavish erotic thriller

Director relocates British author’s novel set in Victorian era to 1930s Korea, and delivers a film that is much more than the lurid lesbian potboiler some critics labelled it after Cannes premiere

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 5:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2016, 4:58pm

4/5 stars

Following his elegant English-language debut, Stoker, Park Chan-wook returns to his native South Korea for his latest outing, the sumptuous erotic thriller The Handmaiden. Based on British author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park has freely adapted this Victorian-era tale, relocating it to 1930s Korea when the nation was under Japanese rule.

An orphan trained as a pickpocket, Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is picked up by Ha Jung-woo’s Korean schemer, armed with an elaborate plan to exploit well-to-do heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) while he’s posing as a Japanese count. Becoming her handmaiden, Sook-hee must convince her mistress to marry the count. But when she and the vulnerable Hideko fall for each other, it sets in motion a chain of revenge, double-crossing and violence.

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Billed by some as a lurid lesbian potboiler when it premiered in Cannes, The Handmaiden is much more lavish than this reductive description suggests. Take the film’s central love scene: as the girls pleasure each other, the camera floats above them in a majestically mounted shot conjured by Park’s regular cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon. It’s a moment of beauty.

This being Park, as he departs from Waters’ novel in the final act, there will be blood – with one torture scene liable to turn stomachs. There’s also a nod to the octopus-eating scene in Oldboy, and plenty of Gothic chills reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s recent Crimson Peak (a cobra guarding a collection of erotica belonging to Hideko’s uncle is particularly unsettling). Boldly crafted, assuredly told, it’s another splendid work from Park.

The Handmaiden opens on June 30

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