A sumptuous new adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a dazzling tale of duplicity and deception.
Lust, Cautionby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Oldboy director Park Chan-wook has turned Sarah Waters’ intriguing Victorian-era novel Fingersmith into an erotic genre thriller set in 1930s Korea during the period of Japanese colonialism. Keeping to the events of the first part of the three-part novel, orphaned pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent as a maid to Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to help con-man posing as a bogus aristocrat Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) in his plot to swindle her out of her fortune by seducing and marrying her, and then getting her committed to an asylum.
But the unexpected strong sexual attraction between the two women threatens to derail his plan. Hideko lives with her rich black-tongued uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin Woong), who is grooming her to marry him, in an extraordinary mansion that is a mixture of traditional British and Japanese styles, whose sliding doors both reveal and conceal the many layers of secrets within.
In the second part of the film, as in Waters’ novel, the viewpoint suddenly shifts from Sook-hee to Hideko, and we see the events of part one revealed in a different light. There are flashbacks to her childhood and she reveals the true nature of the books she is forced to read aloud to her uncle and his visitors. But it’s in part three that Park diverges from Waters’ original into the con man’s story and into a resolution that includes some of his trademark torture – and an octopus.
The film looks at enclosure and escape, Park said after its premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival. The twists and turns of its intricate plotting are compelling and the settings – the house, the remote inn in Japan, the asylum – are beautifully shot. There is strong erotic chemistry between the two delicately beautiful female leads and although there are elements of female empowerment as they fall in love, their extensive sex scenes seem shot from the male gaze. It’s a film that gradually reveals its many layers of deception, is always visually stunning, yet drops one of the most intriguing deceits of the original novel and its new third part where loose ends are tied up seems rather abrupt.
The Handmaiden screens on 7 and 8 October at the BFI London Film Festival 2016.