There’s something fishy about The Handmaiden and it’s not just the octopus in the basement. Chan-wook Park, the South Korean director of such darkly realized stunners as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, is a noted storyboard guru. Each frame a picture, the film-critic-turned-filmmaker has a stunning eye for specificity that is reflected in the urgent nuances of every camera movement, every prop, every look, every framing choice. So when his latest picture reaches the conclusion of its first act and turns time back to the beginning, we become fiercely cognizant of the various misdirection at play. After all, the devil is in the detail. And you know that with Park’s distinctively dark auteur style, there are an abundance of both devils and details.
What may be surprising is how utterly sincere and heartfelt Park’s 10th feature truly is. At the heart of it, The Handmaiden is a lustful and intimate love story. In 1930’s Japan-colonial ruled Korea, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a master pickpocket from a long line of pickpockets. She and partner-in-crime “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), an accomplished counterfeiter turned counterfeit Count, plot to woo heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and pilfer her lofty inheritance before throwing her in the madhouse. But when Sook-hee and Lady Hideko strike up a friendship with budding sexual undercurrents, the con becomes increasingly complicated and other urges take precedence.
It wouldn’t be a Chan-wook Park joint without some deliciously squirmable grotesqueries – de-phalanged hands, brutal spankings, etc. – but the body horror is appropriately blanched by colorful depictions of graphic sexuality. That sexuality is two-fold. One is natural, organic and pure; the result of Sook-hee and Lady Hideko’s flaming intimacy that’s shot with tenderness and compassion. Moments of their intimacy rival the revealing rawness of Blue is the Warmest Color …if you catch my drift. Let’s just say that you may want to leave the kids at home for this one as it gets hot and heavy and the steam pours from the screen.
On the other side of the sexual spectrum, patriarchy is given malevolent form. Lady Hideko’s perverse uncle (Jin-woong Jo), a Korean highborn obsessed with Japanese culture, particularly novella erotica, forces her to read sexual passages from his extensive collection of erotic “literature” aloud to a crop of swooning, boned up seniors, each of whom pay for the privilege to be audience members. The scenes are as uncomfortable as they are offensive to Hideko’s character and reveals the underlying gender politics that Park so carefully hones in on. In a male-dominated society, the love that blossoms between two women has unmatched purity and it’s a beautiful subversion of the classical Victorian era romance, from which the source material was adapted.
While “Fingersmith” from Welsh author Sarah Waters serves as the launching pad for the narrative twits and turns within The Handmaiden, Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung make the material their own by transporting it across the Indian Ocean and doubling down on the sumptuous lesbian romance at its center. The extreme sexual perversion and unsettling physical violence are also mainstays of the Korean auteur which add a bit of nastiness to the otherwise “tame” potboiler it borrows from. Nonetheless, Park counterbalances the sweet and sour with the delicacy of one wielding chopsticks for one grain of rice, showing his great flair as a filmic mathematician, his soft ear for sweet melodrama and his resolute expertise as a master of cinematographic choices.
With an uncomfortable run time of 2 hours and 47 minutes, The Handmaiden is no doubt a deliberately paced venture that may turn off the less observant or patient viewer. And though that may limit the willingness of some to embark upon Park’s vision, those willing to invest in the various threads of his ouroboros narrative and allow themselves to become an author in Park’s craning whirligig of Shakespearean tragedy and sardonic sexual exasperation will find the The Handmaiden is filled with sick pleasures many and makes for a rather rewarding cinematic experience.
CONCLUSION: Chan-wook Park’s ‘The Handmaiden’ smartly blends a historical thriller with a sultry lesbian romance, making for a film that’s as difficult to categorize as it is utterly entrancing. Devious, dark and artful, it may not be as viscerally abducting or ultraviolent as ‘Oldboy’ but, like any great erotic thriller, it is sure to engage both the cortex and crevices.