The Handmaiden is a film featuring deception, betrayal and control amid opulent elegance and plenty of sex. Set in 1930s Korea and concentrating on high production values, most of the action is set in the country mansion of a Korean mine owner, who is an old man pretending to be Japanese to further his social climbing (Korea was a Japanese colony at the time).
The Handmaiden starts with a plot by a young con-man to swindle Lady Hideko, the niece of the old man's dead Japanese wife, who is the heiress to a fortune in Japan (confused yet?). This con job requires an accomplice (a Korean pick pocket called Sook-Hee) to take up the job as maid to the heiress at the mansion. The first part of the film is told from Sook-Hee's point of view. This deception is not the only one operating in the film and all four leads are striving for control over one or more of the others. Sex also plays a big part in the film. The old man's hobby is collecting old Japanese pornography and holding readings for fellow fans followed by an auction of the relevant book. The young man is trying to seduce the heiress. The women also have sex. In fact the relationship between heiress and her new maid is the core of the film with the men hovering around and trying to control them.
Director Park Chan-wook enjoys playing with the audience, leading us up the garden path, undermining our expectations and drawing out the sex scenes longer than some audience members will be comfortable with. Despite the abundance of sex, Park Chan-wook also includes some of the violence and gore that he is famous for.
Ian's rating 4/5