Review by Anne Billson
Park Chan-wook is a Korean film-maker, hitherto best known for his ultra-violent revenge trilogy which features, among other things, tooth-pulling without anaesthetic, serial infanticide, and a scene in which his leading actor eats a live octopus. Nothing he has so far directed suggested that he was capable of pulling off not just the most erotic movie of the year, but one that fully embraces the female point of view. And yet The Handmaiden, inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, is a sensual lady-treat from start to finish - so long as you remember to close your eyes during a late-breaking scene in which one character is horribly tortured with book-binding equipment. Unless, of course, being horribly tortured with book-binding equipment happens to be your thing.
Park and his female co-scenarist Jeong Seo-kyeong transpose the novel from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, where the Japanese occupation adds extra layers of hierarchy, repression and decadence. It's a film of three parts. In the first, a charming conman known as "The Count" engages a young female pickpocket called Sook-Hee to travel to a sprawling Gothic mansion, where she must pose as a maid to help him seduce Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress whose uncle, a cruel bibliophile with ink-stained tongue, plans to marry her for her fortune. I shan't describe the other two parts; suffice to say the overripe narrative has more twists than a pretzel, and you don't even want to know what's in the basement.
Aha, you may think, a lady and her maid is the sort of set-up that will undoubtedly lead to erotic shenanigans, and you'd be right. But you might be surprised at how deliciously erotic those shenanigans are, beginning with a scene involving a broken tooth, which unfurls into what has to be the hottest dentistry-related action of all time. There are three extended lesbian sex scenes (one shown twice, from different points of view) that are as explicit as such scenes can be without tipping into Pornhub territory. Don't expect genitalia, but do fasten your seatbelts for a full complement of naked frottage, scissoring and cunnilingus, with some Ben Wa love-balls thrown in.
Even better, each sex scene is vital to the story, with image (a caressed elbow, the tip of a tongue) and sound (breathing, gasping, sighing) uniting to enhance our understanding of the characters. It's a telling contrast to the glimpses of male desire, in which women are objects to be seized and abused. Yet even the non-sexual moments are suffused with sensuality: this film is a glove fetishist's dream, and there are corsets to be laced, buttons to be unbuttoned, lollipops to be licked, perfumed gardens all wet with rain, and steamy Japanese prints, including a famous one by Hokusai in which, this time, it's the octopus doing the eating. In short, a swoon-worthy pleasure for the eyes, ears and libido.
Graze on my lips
And if those hills be dry
Where the pleasant fountains lie
Shakespeare, from Venus and Adonis