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Korean period drama promises to satisfy fans of erotic thrillers
HIGH drama, cruel deception, deviant behaviour and a denouement where everyone gets their just deserts awaits viewers of The Handmaiden, Korean director Park Chan-wook's newest and quite deliciously wicked film about how falling in love with the wrong person can seriously derail the best laid plans.
The story, based on the Victorian era crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is easily transposed to early-20th-century Korea under Japanese colonial rule - after all, there seems to be no shortage of source material for Korean period dramas. Shakespeare and DH Lawrence meet the Marquis de Sade in Park's adaptation, co-written with Chung Seo-kyung, about an orphaned pickpocket who is roped in by a conman to cheat a psychologically frail young Japanese aristocrat of her inheritance.
Park, whose films Joint Security Area (2000) and Oldboy (2003) helped to mark his arrival as a filmmaker of note on the international scene, isn't known to hold back when it comes to extreme violence or other squirm-inducing moments, but The Handmaiden is more of a psychological slow burn - a potboiler of a tale, told from different perspectives.
And what a riveting tale it is. Divided into three distinct parts, the first is told through the eyes of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a street-smart young pickpocket whose mother was a master thief. She is recruited by suave con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) - actually the son of Korean farmers who teaches himself to forge art books - and sent to be the handmaiden for Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a pale, high-strung heiress who lives with her domineering uncle Kouzouki (Cho Jin-woong) in a large country estate.
Fujiwara instructs his co-conspirator to serve her new mistress diligently, acting like a pair of chopsticks: "Her presence is not noticed but her absence causes distress." In between Hideko's art classes, reading sessions and afternoon walks in the estate, Sook-hee and her ladyship become attached to each other - there is a bath scene and a (heavily-censored) bedroom session to prove it.
The main characters are driven by a single-minded ambition, to the point where we're not sure who is conning whom. But we do look forward to Part Two, told from Hideko's point of view, and Part Three peels back the various layers of the narrative as all is revealed.
We learn more about Kouzouki and his perverse inclinations, including his penchant for collecting a library's worth of illustrated pornographic books with titles like Decadent Girls Who Sell Lingerie, The Lady's Lapdog and Bells and Balls (use your imagination). Hideko's damaged psyche is due in large part to her upbringing (training is a more appropriate term) by her dastardly uncle.
The Handmaiden features bilingual (Japanese and Korean) dialogue, lush scenery and impeccable aesthetics. Several scenes are overly stylised and there are some dizzying reversals of fortune, but this period piece offers more than enough to satisfy fans of the erotic thriller genre. In any case, you'll never think of small metal orbs again in quite the same way.