Written by Park Chan-Wook and Seo-Kyung Chung, ‘Mademoiselle’ which translate as ‘The Handmaiden’ in English is a brilliant piece of art—yet it’s extensively confusing until the puzzle is pieced together at the end of the film.
As a rework of Sarah Waters’ brilliant best-selling novel Fingersmith, ‘Mademoiselle’ is set in the 1930s—with two women playing odd and smart cards to cross and double cross each other in a cunning and interesting ways to secure their independence.
The film is divided into three parts just as the novel and the inbuilt confusion stems from the excessive use of flashback—it’s so much such that you have to all the time keep wondering whether you are watching a flashback or following the current state of the story.
The first part of the story is told from Sook-hee’s perspective.
Sook-hee (played by Kim Tae-ri) is a young maid with unsuspecting skills—an expert in pick pocketing. She is hired by a con man who masquerades as Count Fujiwara (played by Ha Jung-woo) to deceive the wealthy Lady Hideko (played Kim Min-hee) into marrying him with the intention of ingeniously stripping her off all her fortune.
Sook-hee was not just a side-kick of the grand plan, she had a strong interest in the outcome—she had been promised a huge sum of cash that would change her life for good and forever.
It wasn’t much of a big deal to a pickpocket initially to want to aid in such an ‘astute scam’, but eventually when Sook-hee entered the huge mansion, her mind changed after she became intimately involved with Lady Hideko—and began to scrutinize her mission, out of her sudden emotional attachment and perhaps because she realized the sort of inflexible bondage she was in under Count Fujiwara.
Sook-hee and Lady Hideko were not just hanging out as Count Fujiwara expected and thought, they were making prolong love—and the film takes a special interest in dishing out the details of each touch they made in bed; it was naughty, vivid, sexy and sometimes uncomfortable.
The sex scenes between the two kept on coming—and when Sook-hee’s first licking of what’s in-between her madam’s thighs was abruptly cut off, the scene was revisited to give the viewer the full picture of how it all happened.
If someone walked on anyone watching any of those intimate and yet artistic sex scenes which went on for quite some time, that person would think a lesbian porn is being enjoyed—it was that intense.
In between the two women holding and hiding a secret affair, Count Fujiwara was working on his scheme to marry Lady Hideko, and he dubiously threw his conspirer under the bus, masterminding another plan with Lady Hideko to lock up Sook-hee forever—after letting Lady Hideko in on Sook-hee’s real identity and mission.
At a point, it seemed Count Fujiwara had succeeded in pulling Lady Hideko to his side, with Sook-hee having become a victim instead of a victor of the ploy.
Part Two got brutally confusing; the flashbacks were as though they were on a perpetual loop.
But the Third Part settled all the dust—and it lighted out the twist, to give prominence to exactly what the stakes were for each of the three playing the dangerous con game grounded in distrust and double crossing.
Though confusing, the film ends on a straight line—which sort of makes you wonder if the plenty meandering were all necessary.
On the face of it, the film falls into the traditional storytelling box of love conquering it all; but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to ask if the two emerged as winners because of genuine love or it was a complete feminist collaboration and attack—coated with a shady art of romance.
Of course, Lady Hideko had to make a difficult decision; each was in there to cut a piece of her and it seems, she just settled for the least dangerous bite.
(South Korea) A The Joker, BAC Films, CJ Entertainment presentation of a Moho Film, Yong Film production. (International sales: CJ Entertainment , Seoul.) Produced by Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim. Executive producers, Miky Lee. Co-producers, Yoon Suk-chan, Kim Jong-dae, Jeong Won-jo. Co-executive producer, Jeong Tae-sung.
Directed by Park Chan-wook. Screenplay, Chung Seo-kyung, Park, adapted from the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Chung Chung-hoon; editor, Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum; music, Cho Young-wuk; production designer, Ryu Seong-hee; costume designer, Cho Sang-kyung; sound (5.1 Ch.), Kim Suk-won; re-recording mixer, Jung Gun; visual effects supervisor, Lee Jeon-hyoung; visual effects, 4th Creative Party; associate producer, Jay Lee.
Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)