Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden is pretty much everything his American debut, Stoker, failed to be. For sure, both feature his sensuous visuals, idiosyncratic storytelling structure, and improbable bits of humor wedged into Gothic genre, but there's a greater sense of daring when he's making a movie in his native Korea. Many will point to the utterly ravishing lesbian sex scene as an example of the director pushing boundaries beyond what Hollywood generally allows, but it's more than that. It's the way he's able to eroticize every minute detail in a twisty con game plot that forces you to re-examine those details endlessly.
The result is the most sexually charged movie of the year. It's impossible to take in The Handmaiden and not get swept in the sensuality of it. Chan-Wook manages to make even the filing down of one's teeth just a little bit sexy. Told in three parts (not unlike this week's equally-excellent Moonlight), the film takes place in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where a cunning young handmaiden named Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is employed to work in a gigantic palatial estate under the service of the wispy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She's the niece/captive of her perverted uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a wealthy collector of books of a certain type perverts most definitely appreciate. From the moment Sookie arrives, on a dark and gloomy night no less, we're left to think this will be a case of two women fighting against supernatural horrors haunting the estate's walls.
It's a deception, however, one of many this complex yet completely absorbing mystery has to offer. Sookie is actually part of a long con game orchestrated by the slimy Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who hires her to convince Hideko to fall in love with him. Okay, simple enough, right? Sookie gains Hideko's trust, and turns her docile eyes over to Fujiwara who will woo her and seal the deal, making away with her vast fortune. But that is just the second deception, revealed in a mind-boggling twist that caps the first chapter.
What follows is a recreation of events seen entirely from Hideko's perspective, and the revelations hit you like a punch in the gut. Through judicious use of flashbacks and some clever editing, always a Chan-Wook strength, the reveals only serve to pull us deeper into the intricate web being spun. It's a credit to all involved that reliving these experiences again has a renewed energy, and that's because there's so much we couldn't have picked up on at first glance. For instance, the bond between the two women really begins to take shape at this point, leading to the aforementioned sex scene that some will see as a fulfilment of male erotic fantasy rather than female liberation. Suffice it to say, Sookie begins to develop very real feelings for Hideko, who returns them in kind. But there's still that lingering sense of "Who's zoomin' who here?" You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop while simultaneously hoping Sookie and Hideko run away triumphantly.
Chan-Wook does what so few adaptations are able, which is to successfully transplant the story to an entirely new location. Sarah Waters' novel "Fingersmith" was set in England, but it takes on an entirely new life in Korea, where the desires of women have often taken a backseat to those of men. The Handmaiden works as a pro-feminist revenge tale, where these two women rebel against the men seeking to dominate every aspect of their lives. But also, it puts the fantasies of women well ahead of their creepy male counterparts, who are most often the butt of jokes shared by Sookie and Hideko. This is a film that relishes tearing its men down, and we're having just as much fun watching it happen.
The Handmaiden may have love story between two women at its center, but I wouldn't put it anywhere near other films such as Carol or Blue is the Warmest Color. Like most of Chan-Wook's work it is a film that goes beyond genre and defies easy classification So how about we just settle on calling it a brazen, artsy, and maniacal work of art that must be seen?
Rating: 4 out of 5