THE HANDMAIDEN, drama/thriller, not rated, in Korean and Japanese with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Chan-wook Park’s absorbing erotic thriller, based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, is a devilish delight from start to finish. The setting is Korea in the 1930s during a period of Japanese occupation. A con man posing as a Japanese count ( Jung-woo Ha) has a plan to obtain the fortune of a Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim) who lives a sheltered existence on her oppressive uncle’s secluded estate. The count recruits a petty criminal, a pickpocket named Sookhee (Tae Ri Kim), to pose as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko and aid the count in his efforts to seduce her. His plan is to marry the heiress, declare her insane, and have her locked away as he gains control of her fortune. Fate, as they say, has other plans.
Sookhee is playing along. In her early internal monologues she ogles the heiress’ jewelry, which the count has promised her in exchange for her help, and says, “That’ll be mine when she goes to the madhouse.” But it’s hard not to sympathize with the innocent-seeming Hideko — less because of the count’s long con than because of her domineering and sadistic uncle (Jin-woong Jo) — and Sookhee finds her loyalties shifting as she’s drawn deeper into a web of intrigue, lust, and double-crosses. Soon she’s passionately responding to Hideko, and in an unexpected development, the story moves from the perspective of Sookhee to that of her mistress. As it does, the plot developments also shift. In revisiting earlier scenes from another vantage point, notably a passionate encounter between Hideko and Sookhee — a masterstroke for Park that should inspire even the most jaded cineaste — the question becomes who is conning whom.
Park is a visual stylist who fills each frame with lush interiors. With a fetishistic attention to objects as well as people, he employs sensuous camera movements that, like dangled carrots, draw you in. The director can even make the filing down of a tooth into an erotic experience — and he does so in The Handmaiden. As in the Park-directed Stoker (2013), the practice of simultaneously shocking and titillating the audience adds an element of twisted horror to a production that revels in the slow burn and gradual discovery of dark secrets and desires. It builds, with sometimes unbearable tension, to its Grand Guignol finale and an immensely satisfying denouement.
The Handmaiden isn’t perfect. At 144 minutes, it’s a tad overlong, which gives it just enough time to squeeze out a few too many plot twists. Still, it delivers the goods. — Michael Abatemarco
Wrapped around her finger: Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim