Visually The Handmaiden is classic Chan-wook Park. Lush and elegant, the film is a gloriously beautiful thing to look at, full of exacting compositions and exciting camerawork. Tonally the movie is something of a departure for the director, often best known for his works of twisted darkness and shock - The Handmaiden is kinda, sorta a crime caper. With lesbians.
Usually Park wraps his darkness in sardonic humor, but here it’s the opposite - The Handmaiden is often surprisingly funny, with a streak of black nastiness that surfaces every now and again but never overwhelms the film, tonally. That nastiness is an emotional one, as The Handmaiden is a story about emotional manipulation and the systemic abuse of women in Japanese and Korean culture, and that’s where the movie’s impact hits the hardest.
It is also an incredibly horny movie.
Sook is a petty thief in Korea under Japanese occupation in the early days of the 20th century. She gets brought in on a long con - she will become the new handmaiden of sickly, mentally ill Lady Hideko, and convince her to fall in love with con man and forger Count Fujiwara. But once Sook gets into the old manor house she slowly falls for Hideko’s helplessness and sweetness, and the two tentatively - but very very very hotly - start an affair. Here’s the thing: who is conning who here? Sook isn’t exactly sure, and as the movie goes on neither are we.
If I’m revealing slightly more than I knew going in, it’s for your own good. The one thing I wish I had known about The Handmaiden is that it’s kind of a caper film, a movie where there are twists and turns and betrayals and reveals and where motivations are unclear. It’s a battle of con artists, but I went in kind of expecting a psychosexual vice to tighten around me. There is some of that in there, but it is, in the end, lighter than I expected (while still containing deep currents of darkness). I’m just trying to put you in the right mood to enjoy the film.
And the film is incredibly enjoyable. It’s probably Park’s funniest movie (or at least his most successfully funny movie; I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK certainly tried to be funny), and he weaves the humor throughout the film in surprising ways, surprising us with funny moments, and sometimes intertwining them with weird or uncomfortable moments as well. There’s a devious glee that Park has in telling this story, and you can almost see the grin on his face as he pulls the rug out from under you.
When he’s not pulling the rug out from under you he’s making you want to sort of bring the rug to your lap, where you can hold it to hide whatever other feelings this movie stirs; The Handmaiden is boldly and unabashedly erotic, featuring some really next level lesbian encounters. Park shoots the sex scenes with an elegant grace, but they aren’t even the sexiest scenes in the movie; The Handmaiden is full of moments of small sexuality that carry an erotic charge. As Sook and Hideko become closer even the tiniest of contacts can be electric and exciting.
Park has a lot on his mind when it comes to sexuality; while the movie does have the male gaze going on, it’s also interested in a nuanced look at kink and eroticism, in celebrating the consensual and condemning exploitation. It’s no mistake that this movie is set during a period when Japan ruled over Korea.
I really loved Kim Tae-ri’s performance as Sook; there’s a journey she takes from a cocky con artist to a helpless victim of love that I found beautiful, and I especially enjoyed the way she layers in fish-out-of-water comedy (often physical) into the performance. She is terrific against Min-hee Kim as Hideko, and the two have a powerful chemistry that sizzles on screen. Between them is Jung-woo Ha as Fujiwara, a Korean peasant passing as a Japanese nobleman. Ha is pretty perfectly scummy in the role, and as the movie goes on he blossoms into a character you truly love to hate.
The Handmaiden is shockingly sweet for a film that flirts with perversity and dabbles in deception. This is a side of Park I’ve never seen before, and it was almost disorienting. I’m excited to revisit this gorgeous, sumptuous film now that I know its secrets and tricks and just luxuriate in the assured, expert filmmaking of a true modern master.