Lady Hideko is set to be married to her Uncle Kouzuki so he might gain access to her fortune. Across the long stretch of Japan-occupied Korea, a con man named Count Fujiwara concocts a scheme to install Sook-hee as Lady Hideko's handmaiden so he can manipulate Lady Hideko's heart to claim her fortune as his own. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and each participant in this game of deception harbors desires that might destroy everyone's plans. Park Chan-wook directs The Handmaiden, with the screenplay written by Chung Seo-kyung and Park Chan-wook, and stars Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong.
I will be forever grateful for the moment I sat down on Kyle's sofa, he popped in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and I lost my damn mind. Never had I seen such an eclectic array of visual styles led by Chan-wook's steady hands. By the time Oh Dae-su stood bloodied and breathless at the end of a hallway littered with bodies of opponents he just destroyed, I knew I was witnessing something so singular that it might never be topped.
But those were the thoughts of an Andrew with a decade of experience ahead of him. Since then, what felt so fresh about Oldboy started to run a bit long in the tooth, and Chan-wook's other two vengeance films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, got their hooks deep in me with more subtlety in their execution. With The Handmaiden, it's clear Chan-wook's talents did not reach their pinnacle with Oldboy, and The Handmaiden's kooky success is enrapturing.
Chan-wook's decision to adopt Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, a 2002 novel set in Victorian Britain, is a beautiful extension of the tumultuous family drama of his last movie - 2013's Stoker. He's worked so diligently in stories where long simmering tensions rooted in past insults stand with barely restrained desire as characters push at the frame in hopes of painful release. It's a brilliant bit of repurposing as well, taking a story set in a period where Britain was the one doing the colonizing, and changing the temporal site to the early 20th century when Japan occupied Korea. Imperialism was not a one size fits all method of domination and the switching between the Korean and Japanese languages, sometimes mid-sentence, hints at what little respect the Japanese had for Korean when it's used for cursing.
While I may miss out on some of the nuance as I don't speak nor read a lick of either language, the theatricality of the line readings and Chan-wook's decision to color the subtitles differently overcome my barrier. Chan-wook's movies aren't known for their subtle performances, and the intense acting on display helps nail down the shifting social currency being spent. This isn't to say the performances lack nuance. Kim Tae-ri's character Sook-hee, who plays the daughter of a family of counterfeits, maximizes Sook-hee's emotional swing state in a masterful bit of just-enough overacting as she pretends to read a letter to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). When the stage is set for big time bodice-ripping passion, Tae-ri and Min-hee have delved so deeply into their respective character's self-confidence and repression that their coupling emerges a triumph.
Sex has been an integral part of Chan-wook's movies, though deployed in a winking fashion or to pivot healthy relationships into degeneracy. The Handmaiden is unabashedly sexy in a healthy manner unique to Chan-wook's filmography. Not limited to the sex scenes, Chan-wook lets the camera luxuriate over jewelry, frame men smoking cigarettes against enthralled onlookers, and in one bravura sequence when he cuts to men growing aroused at the memory of being whipped. The latter could have been played up for laughs and I'm sure some viewers might have an embarrassed chuckle or two. But Chan-wook does not shame anyone's appetites, sexual or otherwise, this time around and The Handmaiden bursts with eroticism when each character indulges their desires.
Chan-wook, who also wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-kyung, also took the tricky task of retaining Fingersmith's discrete 3-act structure. He manages this by moving deftly between different tones, and the singular perspective of each act allows for the shift to go down more smoothly than it has in the past. While the fun of the caper-esque charade of the first act and the serious family drama of the second are superb, it's the shift to farce in the third act that stunned me. He plays with expectations built from his own filmography, evoking Oldboy by putting ominous octopi in the background as Uncle Kouzuki (a deliciously grotesque Cho Jin-woong) licks his book writing utensils that give his tongue its pitch-black sheen, and writing some of the more unfortunate characters with a streak of gallows humor about their predicament.
The grotesquerie of Uncle Kouzuki is, I think, the key to explaining the success of The Handmaiden. Uncle Kouzuki is so blatantly evil that the darkness within him can't help but spill out onto others. But he's a pathetic monster, relishing in the tortures he can inflict on Lady Hideko, and barely able to leave the sanctity of his lair without reminding others of his once powerful grasp on the family. Chan-wook makes it easy to laugh at this disgusting visage of a human while not neglecting the sexual trauma he's inflicted. Horrible though he is, Uncle Kouzuki is a creature of sexual appetite whose monstrous figure keeps him powerful and pitiable.
As The Handmaiden continues to its joyous conclusion we witness Chan-wook creating, for perhaps the first time, a menagerie of quietly wounded characters. There's nothing as bluntly shocking as Stoker's mid-film masturbation scene or Oldboy's octopus consumption. The horrors and the hopes creep in along the edges of the frame in each masterful shot of the characters trying to figure out their relation to one another. I couldn't help but erupt in joy along with Sook-hee and Lady Hideko as they finally find someone willing to share their bodies and deepest desires with.
Directed by Park Chan-wook.
Screenplay written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung.
Starring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong.