A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.
Split into three chapters, each mirroring and revealing clues about each other, “The Handmaiden,” in the words of its director Park Chan-wook, is “a thriller movie, a story about swindlers, a dramatic story with some unexpected twists, and more than anything else, a romance.” He’s being modest. I would add “feminist parable,” “psychological study,” “sneaky satire of the ‘romance’ genre,” “heist flick,” “almost-Cronenbergian dissection of human anatomy/sexuality,” and “one of 2016’s best films” to the list. The director, known for handling hard-to-pinpoint genres (check out, if you dare, his “Vengeance” trilogy), navigates through these currents with the ease and grace of a seasoned pro, constantly snatching the rug from under his audiences’ feet and making the film’s 144 minutes whizz by. Now that’s quite an accomplishment for what initially may seem like a basic, subtitled (gasp, the horror!) period-piece romance.
I hesitate to reveal much of the plot – it’s one of those films where every detail may be a spoiler for the attentive – so I’ll attempt to provide it in a nutshell. The conniving Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hatches a plan to get the inheritance of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) by stealing her away from the incestuous Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) and committing her to a mental institution. He uses Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a self-proclaimed young pickpocket, to scheme his way into Kouzuki’s gargantuan Gothic mansion. Under the pretense of being the Lady’s handmaiden, Sookee begins to experience feelings for the seemingly fragile – and slightly unhinged – Hideko, while Count Fujiwara arrives to seduce the Lady. He teaches her art, completely confident in his hypnotic effect on women, and the mission’s success. The three of them manage to elope to Japan… Only things don’t quite work out they – or the audience, for that matter – anticipated.
By the time Part Two arrives, Chan-wook has inserted a twist to the aforementioned proceedings, leaving one intrigued and disoriented. Without saying too much, there is a flashback to Lady Hideko’s harsh upbringing, revealing a depth to her relationship with the sadistic Uncle and caring-but-hollowed Aunt (Moon So-ri). The narration of Part One proves to be not-entirely-reliable, and everything is put in perspective: objects and their significance, characters’ motivations and their feelings – everything mirrors each other, adding tiny brush strokes here and there, until a complex and beautiful painting appears on the canvas. The film is crammed with tiny-but-crucial details, such as a pin in Sookee’s hair that also happens to be a key (literally) to salvation. Plot points unravel seamlessly, Park Chan-wook carefully peeling away the onion’s layers until we get to the film’s nerve-shredding core. If there ever were a film that demanded multiple viewings, this one’s it, folks. Part Three plays more like an Epilogue, a natural sequence of consequences and tying of loose ends.
“The Handmaiden” is both a breath of fresh air and a powerful parable that will take your breath away. (Speaking of, breathing is a crucial aural aspect of the film, continuously reappearing on the sublime soundtrack, the breath of an orgasm juxtaposed against the Dying Breath.) Scenes wedge themselves into your brain: a woman hanging from a tree; Sookee fixing Lady Hideko’s tooth in the bathroom… I’ve never seen anything quite like the reading of an erotic tale, Geisha-style, in front of an audience of horny men, prior to an auction – and a consequent mid-air suspension that is terrifying, artful and beautiful, embodying this unique film.
The sex scenes are some of the most genuinely erotic since the days of Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.” They are somehow both palpably real and sumptuously filmed with flair, radiating passion and awkwardness, heat and alienation. Another auteur, Gaspar Noé, recently attempted to approach this level of realism in “Love” (read my review here) but failed at it; perhaps the French director can take cues from his South Korean compadre. The passionate sequences are as “spellblindingly beautiful” as a certain part of the female anatomy, at which Sookee gapes in awe, before her and Hideko’s bodies morph into one. Through the cunning use of lighting, editing – and a magic touch the secret to which only the filmmaker knows – the viewer is fully immersed, forgetting they are in a theater with dozens of other aroused spectators (insert bad Pee Wee joke here).
“Everyone’s performing their roles so well,” Sookee narrates, spying on the Count and the Lady, and the same can be said about the acting. Tae-ri Kim, a newcomer, portrays alluring innocence and carries the film on her deceptively fragile shoulders. Kim Min-hee is an ethereal presence, astoundingly beautiful and mysterious. Ha Jun-woo’s transformation from suave chauvinist to a man coming face-to-face with his demons is effective and memorable. The women in this film are powerful and sensual, feeding off of each other’s constrained energy. All criticism aimed at Chan-wook for chauvinistic male-gazing are completely unjustified – he admires those women, purposefully displaying them as objects of men’s affection lovingly, luring us in, and then, “Audition”-style, reversing expectations. In the meantime, men are portrayed as shallow, scheming, sex-obsessed and self-absorbed, feeding on women like testosterone-filled predators. Only the joke’s on them. This is a much more potent female empowerment tale than the shit Hollywood forces down our throats – it just expects its audiences to keep up with it.
This, of course, would not be a Park Chan-wook film without at least one scene of gasp-inducing violence. He also clearly has a thing for octopi, here a symbol of the penetrating tentacles of oozing, slithery men. The director has no tolerance for sap – something I had presumed/feared would occur in a Gothic love story. Akin to Sookee gagging at the Count’s cheesy sentiments, Chan-wook would gag at the soap-opera-ish sentimentality of, say, a lot of Jane Austen adaptations. This is about as hard-edged a romance as you’re going to witness. Yet a romance it is, the cinematography, by Chan-wook’s “brother-in-arms” Chung Chung-hoon (who’s worked with the director before on “Stoker” and “Old Boy”) simply astounding, every shot charged with such eroticism and grace it would make Bernardo Bertolucci proud. “The Handmaiden,” to use the old chestnut, oozes sexuality, and does so effectively, keeping the audience mesmerized (and, ahem, again, I assume, um, slightly aroused) throughout its lengthy running time.
Sadistic and beautiful, biting and romantic, it’s a high-voltage, part-Shakespearean, part-psychedelic brew that only Park Chan-wook, one of the best current auteurs in cinema, could concoct. Imagine “The Talented Mr. Ripley” clashing with Marquis De Sade, then add a heavy dose of Gothic drama to the mix, and you won’t even come close to picturing the experience of “The Handmaiden.” It shocks, titillates and provokes in equal measures. Half-Japanese, Half-Korean, it even manages to smoothly incorporate the tumultuous political past of the two countries. Unabashedly old-fashioned in its epic sweep and grand romantic gestures, “The Handmaiden” succeeds in harkening back to the glory days of filmmaking, but also twists the genre inside out. Above all, it’s hugely entertaining, always teetering on scandalous and melodramatic but never tipping over, thanks to the firm directorial grasp. Bravo.
Opens in New York & Los Angeles October 14th