The Handmaiden (2016)

Starring: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo

Directed by: Park Chan-Wook

Rating: 1 2 3 4

I loved Sarah Waters' Victorian gothic melodrama Fingersmith. From gin-soaked baby farms to juvenile pickpockets to madhouses, it ticks every box required for Dickensian Grand Guignol – and throws in a glorious romance to boot. But after a disappointing TV adaptation fell a bit flat, the torrid tale has been brought to the big screen by Park Chan-Wook, who, as the man behind the Oldboy trilogy and the deliciously dark, fetishistic Stoker, can certainly be said to be in touch with his gothic side.

Jung-woo Ha as the Count and Min-hee Kim as Hideko in The Handmaiden

Relocated from England to Korea during the Japanese occupation, the film sees former pickpocket Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) despatched to the grand mansion of a beautiful heiress the Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), to become her maid. However, we soon learn that Sookee has an ulterior motive: she is there to persuade the sheltered young girl to elope with 'the Count' (Jung-woo Ha), a shady underworld character posing as a Japanese aristocrat – think Bill Sykes but played by Tom Hiddleston. But things go awry when Sookee finds herself falling for her mistress...

Just who is playing who in this dangerous game of deception and double dealing? Unless you've read the book and already know, you'll have to wait and see, because I ain't telling.

And even if you have read the book and know exactly who's lying (clue: pretty much everyone) you'll still find yourself swept up in this gorgeous, decadent, enthralling movie, which despite a lengthy running time seems to fly by in a whirl (mostly – part 2 drags a bit as focus shifts from our heroines to their male oppressors, but I'll forgive that).

Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim in The Handmaiden

And then there's the sex. For a movie that highlights the destructive, warping, dehumanising power of pornography, there's a lot of graphic squelchy stuff going on here. But we’re all grown ups here (albeit repressed British ones) and besides, despite the artful, indisputably aesthetically pleasing way in which the scenes are drawn – the elegant symmetry of the two slender women with their matching long dark flowing hair and soft focus beauty – like the sex in Don't Look Now or Antichrist, it's not just there for titillation but plays a key role in the story and the character development of Sookee and Hideko. Both subjugated to men since childhood, sex together is a joyous freeing of the soul, a rewriting of the patriarchal rules and re-colonising of their bodies as they re-appropriate instruments of torture as agents of pleasure.

Sarah Waters has given The Handmaiden the thumbs up, so it would be rude of me not to do likewise. Engaging, erotic, often funny, and visually sumptuous, this film is a feast for the senses. Enjoy.

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