With this adaptation of Sarah Waters’novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook underlines what has been increasingly apparent in his works – including his Vengeance trilogy, his vampire Therese Raquin movie Thirst and US-made Stoker – that he’s the current leading proponent of the classical gothic in cinema, rooting his entire vision in Jacobean tragedy, 18th and 19th century literature and Hitchcockian-Hammer Films old dark house suspense. Even more than Guillermo del Toro in Crimson Peak, Park fully embraces the tradition with rickety plotting, deep passions, unlikely turns (though he drops Waters’ switched-at-birth gambit) and sinister imagery. It’s a gorgeous, seductive film, played as broadly as it has to be and – in the ’extended cut’ I saw – taken slowly enough for us to appreciate the sumptuous scenery and get the most out of scenes we have to watch two or three times from different perspectives to wring every last drop of meaning from. The book was previously adapted as a BBC two-parter – Park splits the story just as the TV series broke its episodes, though he goes for three rather than two sections – and this fits strangely into a new viewing mode, that maybe has roots all the way back to Twin Peaks or von Trier’s Kingdom: it feels as if it were made to bingewatch, with a near-three-hour-running time confidently occupied by great, meaty material.
Naïve-seeming new maid Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is taken into the household of Kouzuki (Jin-woong Ho), a scholar whose tongue is black from sucking a pen and whose soul turns out to be blacker still. A Korean who venerates the Japanese occupiers and the West, Kouzuki’s house is half English country mansion and half classical Japanese. Both sections have their terrifying secrets – including a library guarded by a metal snake, and many, many screens. Sook-Hee cosies up to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who seems trapped by her evil uncle – with a dead-in-childbirth mother and a hanged aunt in the backstory – serving as a ‘reader’ in all-male literary sessions which turn out to have less to do with learning than licentiousness as it emerges he is a connoisseur of pornography. The first pull-back reveal is that Sook-Hee is a crook from infancy, raised in a more sisterly version of a Dickensian rookery, recruited by con-man Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to help him in wooing the fragile Hideko away from her uncle (who intends to marry her to secure a fortune) and then clap her in a madhouse so he can get the loot himself … but, though she works hard on the scam, Sook-hee warms up to Hideko and is drawn into an affair with her, tentative in the first pass (educational wedding night roleplay) but more full-on top shelf stuff (with vigorous scissoring and 69) when we see it full strength.
There’s a shocker of a first half twist as Sook-Hee reluctantly goes through with the con only to find she’s been set up. The calculating Hideko and Fujikawa are in cahoots and she’s the one who’s supposed to go to the madhouse – her sufferings there are slightly skimped as the film loops back to much other material to fill in the set-up, including more horrific reveals about Hideko’s childhood and the vileness of her uncle, whose full-on torture basement includes antique sex toys, bookmaking equipment repurposed for torture (more fingersnipping than fingersmithing) and a gross octopus which has outgrown its tank (Fujikawa obliges the uncle by forging a classic bit of tentacle hentai). The final act brings together the lesbian lovers and washes them free of initial misdeeds against each other as they contrive to get free of the two rotten men in their lives – the horrid housekeeper (Hae-suk Kim), who turns out to be the uncle’s first wife, is surprisingly let off well-deserved punishment – and trash their nasty hobbies. A splendid suspense sequence has Hideko gull her new husband by playing along with his lovemaking as she waits for poison to kick in, and we wonder whether the knockout/suicide drops used on him will be effective since he gave them to her at an earlier stage in the plot when he might have been planning another duplicity.
The leading ladies are lovingly filmed and perform delicately – with Min-hee Kim getting a peach of a role (and wardrobe) as an astonishingly complex, varied rereading of the trapped-in-a-house gothic heroine. It’s splendidly visualised, as art direction highlights off items (sex implements cum torture devices and mucky books) while the detailed, layered sets are explored as the shuttering or sliding open of grilles and screens recur as metaphors for confinement, revelation and escape.