The Handmaiden: like a meaner, sexier Jane Austen

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Handmaiden
Roxy Theatre
Opens November 11

Very few filmmakers guarantee a rollercoaster experience at the movies like South Korean wunderkind Park Chan-wook. I’m not talking the Michael Bay type of “entertainment”: it’s very difficult to assess the direction Park movies will take until late in the game. In fact, he’s responsible for one of the best twists of the century — Oldboy’s utterly perverse (and batshit crazy) revenge scheme.

The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ book Fingersmith, set in Victorian England. The relocation to 1930’s Korea is seamless and adds a culture clash layer missing in the original.  Sook-Hee, a young local, is hired to serve as personal servant to Lady Hideko, a sheltered Japanese heiress. Despite first impressions, Sook-Hee is far from a naïve townie. She has been coached by her uncle, a con man, to encourage a romance between him and Lady Hideko. The goal is marry her, lock her in an asylum and split the dough.

What ensues is a series of revelations and double-crossings that make difficult to guess who’ll come out on top. Each one of the main characters gets the spotlight for a third of the film. Far from redundant, the story deepens every time and new dimensions come to light.

The Handmaiden is exquisite to watch. Every period detail has been painstakingly reconstructed, but always with an eye on serving the story. Also, captions distinguish Korean from Japanese, a detail that provides unexpected nuances (as counterpoint, Son of Saul was robbed from much of its power by careless subtitling).

A brainy filmmaker by definition, Park Chan-wook fails to inject emotionality to the proceedings, causing some distance with the audience. Nevertheless, the puzzle-like structure of the film is bound to keep you interested for the near two-and-a-half hours it lasts.