2016, NR, 144 min. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-woong, Moon So-ri.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Oct. 28, 2016
South Korean director Park Chan-wook is probably best known for his 2003 Cannes Grand Prix winner Oldboy, that octopus-eating, hammer-ramming, incest-laden freak-out that wowed Tarantino and a million other worldwide fans. But that was 13 years ago, and Park has been steadily amassing a crisp, noteworthy CV of projects since then. From finishing that Vengeance trilogy, to his vampire love story Thirst, and the underrated Stoker, we now have The Handmaiden, a film in which Park harnesses every trick in his toolbox, a stunning and endlessly compelling puzzle that offers up a multitude of pleasures; mysterious, erotic, and otherwise.
Park loves intricate narratives, so Sarah Waters’ source material, the 2002 novel Fingersmith, suits him well. A stew of rogues, housemaids, perverts, and a seemingly naive heiress all simmering together in a savory concoction of deception, set in Victorian England, Waters’ novel subverted the genre while still delivering the satisfaction of a good tale told. And while Park moves the story from 19th century England to 1930s Korea (under the Japanese occupation), nary a beat is missed, because, hey, class differences are eternal (and ever will be). But let’s delicately tease out some narrative strands (as with most of these things, the less known, the better): Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri) is an orphan growing up in a den of thieves, who learned to pickpocket and discern fake jewelry before she was 10. She’s dispatched to be a handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) in a plot hatched by the supposed Count Fujiwara (Ha) to marry the lady, throw her in an asylum, and steal her fortune. Sookhee’s role is to subtly foment that outcome. Conflicting emotions start to brew. There’s also Hideko’s uncle, an obsessive man only concerned with his books and scrolls, who also wants to marry his niece for her fortune as well.
The film doubles back as it progresses, shedding layers of the mystery, and Park’s assured direction and his virtuosity keep the viewer compelled to follow all the double and triple crosses that pepper the film. Park has created a film of enthralling fetishistic delights and imagery (Ink-stained tongues! Intricate corsets! Ben Wa balls!) that will be seared into your brain. An engaging and evocative thriller/love story, The Handmaiden is ultimately a tale of freedom and transformation, as satisfying as an exquisitely choreographed four-course meal.