You can tell you’re watching a Park Chan-wook movie as soon as it starts to unspool: every shot is composed like a painting, colors and textures and shadings of light spilling from the screen like a lush, untouched jungle. The irony, of course, is that the beauty of director Park’s films is matched by the ugliness or creepiness of what’s happening to the people inside the frame, and The Handmaiden is no exception.
Based on a novel called Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, the story is a standard genre narrative and almost a clichéd one: a con man (Ha Jung-woo) enlists a street thief named Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to become the handmaiden of the wealthy yet fragile heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as part of a ploy to seduce the heiress and gain access to her fortune. But the plan takes an unexpected twist when, as you might expect, the handmaiden and the heiress fall in love.
So yes, this sounds like something out of a Mystery 101 writing class, but at the same time, this is a movie from the director of Oldboy, Thirst and Stoker (his underrated foray into English-language filmmaking), which means there are all sorts of bizarre thematic flourishes throughout The Handmaiden’s hefty 145-minute running time. Love, sex (very explicit), sadomasochism, master-servant dynamics and even Korean-Japanese relations all play a part in the movie’s sprawling, sometimes messy canvas.
The story itself (a period piece transposed from the novel’s Victorian-era England to Korea under the colonial thumb of Japan) has enough twists to warrant us from stopping any further plot description, but suffice to say that no one here is what they seem, even the seemingly innocent are hiding a closetful of secrets, and the main setting — a vast house with one Japanese wing, one English wing and a nasty dungeon underneath — is a rich visual metaphor for the mix of sordid and romantic goings-on inside.
If anything, The Handmaiden sometimes feels like too much of a good thing — especially when Park rewinds the story after the first act and begins to retell it from Hideko’s point of view, only including a lot of less than savory details about her own life. But Park’s filling in of her back story does add a lot more complexity to this seemingly innocent woman, while also painting a fuller portrait of her monstrous uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), with whom she shares the estate and whose rare collection of pornographic books she reads from for the arousal and delectation of Kouzuki’s frequent male guests.
It is this middle section of the movie that is its most perverse and skates along the thin line of gratuitousness that Park loves to get right next to, while somehow always managing to never cross it (although the showstopping sex scene between Sookee and Hideko comes close). Yet despite the sense somewhere in the second act that Park is biding his time a little too long, The Handmaiden eventually reveals its real subject matter — the subjugation of women and the efforts those women must make to free themselves and find lasting, true companionship.
It’s an honorable theme and Park drives it home with his usual sumptuous visuals, atmosphere of vague dread and occasional bursts of sex and violence. His cast is excellent too, with Kim Min-hee forceful as Sookee and model Kim Tae-ri striking in her acting debut. The emotional and physical chemistry between these two damaged souls is real, palpable and sensual, making the stakes for both bigger and more weighty than anything you might see in your average summer blockbuster.
The Handmaiden runs a bit long, is occasionally overripe, but one has to suppose it wouldn’t be a Park film without that. And this is very much a Park film: visceral, painterly, atmospheric, erotically charged and darkly funny, The Handmaiden can both turn you on and creep you out. If it does both at the same time, then Park has really done the job right.
The Handmaiden is out in theaters today (October 21).