A Cannes competition entry, The Handmaiden, by Park Chan-wook, has been adapted from Sarah Waters’ Victorian era lesbian novel called Fingersmith. The story has been translocated to Japan, and marks the return of the director to Korean language production after his English debut, Stoker.
The Handmaiden is a thriller of sorts that tells us the story of a Korean woman in the 1930s in a criminal pact with an aristocratic swindler, who is trying to fool a rich Japanese heiress into marrying him.
Park, who won the Grand Prix for Old Boy at Cannes in 2003 and the Jury Prize for his Thirst in 2009, said in an interview that he had read the novel some years ago and had found the ‘plot twist’ fascinating. “We needed an era with a caste system employing handmaidens, but also with the modern institution of insane asylums. My producer suggested bringing the story to Korea, during the era under Japanese imperialist rule. I thought I could do something that looked at the period from a different angle,” Park averred.
The Handmaiden is beautifully crafted, is playful despite its grim subject and has highly photogenic sex that is graphic but never coarse or vulgar. The lesbian theme has been handled with artistic sensibility.
The story is mercifully kept simple. Sooki ( played by Kim Tae-Ri), the orphaned Korean daughter of a thief and an accomplished pickpocket herself, is leaving the thieves’ den to become a maid for Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), an innocent young Japanese woman who lives in isolation with an uncle who hopes to marry her and inherit her huge wealth. Sooki is part of a plot hatched by a young man, called The Count (Ho Jung-Woo), who also wants to marry Hideko for her money that he hopes to achieve by shutting her up in a mental asylum. But a sexual attraction between the heiress and the maid turns the scheming Count’s plan upside down.
Divided into two parts, the movie -- which was screened the other day at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival -- narrates how Hideko herself has been coached by her uncle in the ways of sex. He has also trained her to read impassively from his vast library of explicit texts with titles like Decadent Girls Sell Lingerie that he collects obsessively.
The Handmaiden looks technically exquisite with lavish-looking costumes filling up the rich colour palate of the canvas. A little too long though.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival.)