Good Korean movies tend to head in one of two directions: Sweet, tearful romances starring impossibly beautiful actors, or savage displays of the ugliest and darkest of human emotions— also starring impossibly beautiful actors. In this latest work from auteur Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Snowpiercer”), the filmmaker who has single-handedly affirmed a sense of cut-throat intensity unique to Korean cinema, you’d no doubt expect the latter.
But in “The Handmaiden,” Park takes his interest in the taboo and twisted and demonstrates that he can turn his hand to sweet romance too—albeit an unconventional one.
Park takes Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ Victorian-era crime novel “Fingersmith” and shifts it to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Petty thief Sook-hee (fresh-faced Kim Tae-ree), is sent by a con artist who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to work as a handmaid for wealthy heiress
Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The idea is that Sook-hee will convince her to elope with the Count. Once they’re married, they can send Lady Hideko into the madhouse, after which the conspirators can escape with her massive fortune.
With his name firmly in the spotlight after his “Vengeance” trilogy (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”), Park’s work is well known for the revenge fantasies and taboo sexual tension that suffuse all his films. But his stories always manage to be full of surprises, and “The Handmaiden” is no exception.
For audiences unfamiliar with the source material (“Fingersmith” refers both to pickpocketing and female masturbation), “The Handmaiden” has a few long lesbian sex scenes, running the gamut from a seemingly innocent bath scene to what develops into a full blown R-rated session— that admittedly seems a touch too long and verges on the pornographic. While that shouldn’t be a highlight to draw in audiences (but probably will be), it’s good to note that the depiction of female sexuality in the film is very powerful—with two mesmerizing female leads, no less. Sexuality can be a release of repression or ownership, but also an expression of friendship and love.
Every move and line of dialogue is purposeful, referencing itself again and again to bring whole new layers of meaning to what seems at first like a simple phrase. We get a playfully tangled, multi-sectioned plot that pans over many delicious twists—shifts in timeline to show secret double dealings
(South Korea) Period Drama/Thriller. Directed by
Park Chan-wook. Starring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo. Category III. 145 minutes. Opened Jun 30.