“The Handmaiden,” an erotic drama of love and betrayal by Korean director Park Chan-wook, plays this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. The central characters are heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her handmaiden Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), who is also called Tamako. The film is based on the 2002 novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.
The setting is 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation, although the only real sign of occupation is the occasional appearance of soldiers — and, of course, the Korean characters’ admiration for all things Japanese. The first part of the three-part film is narrated from Sookee’s point of view. She was a lowly pickpocket before she was enlisted to be Lady Hideko’s handmaiden. The con man and phony count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-wood) enters the scene with plans to marry Hideko, dump her in a madhouse, and grab her fortune with Sookee’s help. Hideko’s prurient uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) who has raised Hideko, also plans to marry Hideko for her fortune.
As should already be evident, “The Handmaid’s” plot is complicated and often confusing. The British-Japanese-style mansion where Hideko is more or less imprisoned is elegant and luxurious, with peepholes that allow the various characters to spy on one another. Like the setting, the costumes, especially of the two women, are breathtakingly beautiful, a feast for the viewer’s eyes. Counterbalanced with the uncle’s pornographic fascinations, the erotic nature of handmaiden and heiress begins to develop as a central theme. While Hideko bathes, Sookee smoothes her sharp tooth, one of the first signs of a growing intimacy. Under the pretext of teaching her about sex, Sookee makes passionate love to Hideko. Meanwhile, con man Fukiwara insinuates himself into the household as Hideko’s painting teacher.
Part Two unfolds from Hideko’s perspective. Uncle Kouzuki demonstrates his cruelty by slapping his ward’s hand and threatening her with an ogre in the basement, an apparent chamber of horrors.
Many of the scenes introduced in Part One reappear in Part Two, told from the other character’s point of view. This creates a “Rashomon”-like effect of competing visions. Hideko’s sexual encounters with Sookee are replayed, heightening the near pornographic aspects of the film. In a reversal of conman Fujiwara’s plan to send Hideko to a madhouse, Sookee ends up there. A fire at the madhouse leads to her escape and eventual reunion with Hideko, now committed to Sookee as her lover. Torture comes next when Uncle Kouzuki captures Fujiwara.
In addition to the confinement of women, “The Handmaiden” addresses issues of Korean versus Japanese culture, class distinctions, love, sexuality, and perversion. Viewers are certain to enjoy the sumptuousness of director Park’s mise-en-scene (visual design). More challenging will be the complex plot and the hardcore sex.
For more information and tickets, visit mvfilmsociety.com.