Appearances can be deceiving. In "The Handmaiden" that platitude holds true both for its story's duplicitous characters and also for the film itself. At first glance, the latest movie from South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook appears to be a lush, ornately embellished period romance, but behind that somewhat staid first impression is the heart of ... well, of a Park Chan-wook movie.
Nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, "The Handmaiden" is a luridly twisted tale mixing eroticism, romance, and dark comedy with flashes of Chan-wook's characteristically graphic violence. The result is absolutely bonkers -- which also makes it one of the most out and out entertaining films this year.
Adapted from the 2002 novel "Fingersmith" by British novelist Sarah Waters (with the story transplanted from Victorian-era England to 1930's Korea during the Japanese occupation), "The Handmaiden" follows wily pickpocket Sook-hee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri). Raised by a Dickensian den of orphans and thieves, Sook-hee is recruited by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to assist in a long con in which she'll become a handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a wealthy Japanese heiress living in a sprawling country estate with her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong).
Sook-hee's task is to manipulate Hideko into falling for, and eventually marry, the dashing (in his own mind at least) Fujiwara, who'll be passing himself off as Japanese nobility. Once they've married, Fujiwara will have Hideko committed to a madhouse, leaving the devious pair to make off with the woman's fortune. But a major kink (the first of many) is thrown into the plan when Sook-hee finds herself falling in love with the fragile heiress.
What follows is a twisting tale of shifting alliances, manipulation, and betrayal, in which love clashes with power and control. The film is split into three distinct sections, folding in on itself to present certain events from a different character's point of view, and offering us a deeper understanding of each of the four main characters. The movie is nothing if not elegantly constructed.
It's soon apparent that Hideko is under the thumb of her sadistic uncle, who has her perform staged readings of erotica -- complete with wooden mannequin to use for demonstrative purposes -- for audiences of drooling men. But Sook-hee and Hideko find a respite in each other from the men who seek to oppress them. In some ways, it seems as though when the women finally embrace their true desires and fall in bed together, they're reclaiming for themselves acts that were previously meant only for the pleasure of men.
Throughout the film, the women are very much in control of the narrative, though the exploration of how the two women find their liberation is occasionally at odds with the way Chan-wook's camera takes on a distinctly male gaze as it offers the best perspectives to view the prolonged bouts of graphic lovemaking.
Park Chan-wook made his English-language debut in 2013 with the underrated gothic thriller "Stoker," but he is best known for his brutal "Vengeance" trilogy ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," and "Lady Vengeance"). As demonstrated in those, the filmmaker is a master at maintaining control over his films' slippery sense of tone, using it to upend his audience's every expectation.
"The Handmaiden's" themes of identity and power are underlined in the use of subtitles, which shift between two colors depending on whether the character is speaking Korean or Japanese. That distinction becomes a critical detail based on who the characters are pretending to be at that specific moment, as well as when and to whom they choose to speak each language.
Chan-wook also explores the way in which beautiful facades can hide untold depths of depravity. In keeping with that idea, the film is a feast for the eyes thanks to cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, lavish production design from Ryu Seong Hie, and sumptuous period costumes by Jo Sang Gyeong. This is a film that definitely benefits from being seen on the big screen.
A seductive, sensual delight, "The Handmaiden" is just the right mix of cerebral and smutty. Beneath all the sex and plot twists is an ardently felt love story, one that keeps unfurling to reveal new and unexpected depths.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "The Eagle Huntress."