Confinement, servitude, duplicity, lesbianism, and feminism make up the palette of Park Chan-wook’s latest cinematic endeavor, The Handmaiden. Park is most well-known for his Vengeance trilogy, especially Oldboy, and it would be simple to say he is stepping outside of his comfort zone. But Park’s films always run the gamut of different genres, making them difficult to classify easily. They can be scary, funny, erotic, thrilling, and perverse, often all within the same film. The Handmaiden is no exception.
In Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930’s, an ambitious grifter enlists the aid of a common pickpocket for his latest scheme. The plan is simple: she will become a heiress’ newest handmaiden, convince the heiress she loves and should marry the con man (disguised as a distinguished gentleman), then reap the benefits of money and valuables after he claims the lady’s inheritance and sends her to a mental institution. Complications arise, however, when the handmaiden and the heiress develop an intense attraction towards one another which could lead to the discovery of true intentions and put everyone at risk. Can passion overcome greed? Will the con go as planned? Can a crook learn to love?
If you believe I may have spoiled a majority of the film for you, this may be your first foray into Park’s territory. As is the case with most of his oeuvre, nothing is as it seems. The plot has twists. The characters have secrets. Lines are crossed. Perceptions and truths are challenged. The movie lacks the genre inclinations of his more well-known works, yet the specter of danger lurks in every corner of every frame. This movie has surprises, and they are a joy to witness unfold.
Not being familiar with the source material, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, I cannot speak to how true or pure of an adaptation the film is. All I can state is the script by Park and Chung Seo-kyung is razor-sharp and clever. As elaborate as it is, the story never unravels or confuses. It knows exactly when to be dramatic, mysterious, funny, sly, or passionate, and the viewer is always in tune with it. The characters are all well-defined while still accommodating hidden depths and layers. Each is imbued with understandable wants and desires which serves to make them more sympathetic or horrifying, depending on who we are looking at and when. Successful adaptation or not, the work itself is a marvel.
Luckily, the marvels do not stop at the page. This film is gorgeous! Whether it be a night-time run through the countryside, a disturbing journey through a forbidden room, or furtive glances shared between uncertain allies, Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon paint exquisite vistas both great and small with precise, clear-cut camerawork and sensuous lighting. The stories being communicated visually are just as important as the ones being communicated through the dialogue, and you’ll never want to take your eyes off it.
You’ll also never want to look away from the performers themselves. Park always populates his films with talented actors who give incredible, emotive performances, and The Handmaiden is no different. Ha Jung-woo plays the con man, Count Fujiwara, with a masterful blend of charm and sliminess. Cho Jin-woong plays the heiress’ mysterious relation, Uncle Kouzuki. He isn’t always present, but he haunts the background with a grotesque odiousness, and he plays it deliciously. However, it’s the ladies who shine. Kim Tae-ri is the pickpocket, Sook-hee, a brash young woman prone to fits of passionate outburst. She must struggle between subservience and rebelliousness; between her greed and her independent nature. Kim Tae-ri knows exactly when to hold back and when to give it her all, and she is fun to watch. Most of the truly complex work, though, comes from Kim Min-hee as the heiress, Lady Hideko. One of the most difficult challenges of an actor is to play a multitude of emotions under a mask of restraint, and Kim Min-hee meets this challenge wonderfully. Her character’s journey is the most fascinating one in the film, and I would rather you discover it and her for yourself.
The rest of the production is just as lavish. The score, the costumes, the set design, and all the work from the peripheral actors and extras aid in giving added life to the film. Multiple viewings will be required before all their contributions can be properly measured and weighed, but how they enrich the full experience of the film is noteworthy. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them.
Park Chan-wook has gifted us with yet another masterwork. The Handmaiden is an astonishing tale of crooks and lovers, sex and lies, perversion and pleasure. It is a seduction, luring the viewer into an intoxicating web of carnal desires and deceptions, knowing exactly when to make you beg and when to satiate your appetites. I can’t stop thinking about it. I would never be able to write enough about it, but I also would never dare spoil all the fun for you. The Handmaiden is one of the year’s best movies, and it absolutely should not be missed.