Park Chan-Wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ Mixes Shocks And Twists In A Tale Of Sex And Deception

It’s best not to get too comfortable watching The Handmaiden, the latest film from Park Chan-Wook (OldboyStoker). It’s a movie that lets viewers think they know what they’re watching before, expertly, pulling the rug out from under them. The first few minutes include the first of many deceptions. In a rain-drenched 1930s Korea suffering under the Japanese occupation, the beautiful Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) bids a tearful farewell to what appears to be her family as she leaves to serve as the handmaiden in the home of a wealthy Japanese man. But something about the nonchalant way Sook-hee chows down on her packed lunch in the back of the car taking her to her new home suggests the situation isn’t quite what it appears to be. And it’s not. In fact, little in the film is not what it appears to be. Anyone who takes anything for granted — within the film or watching it — risks getting lost.

For starters, the Japanese man, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), isn’t Japanese at all, but a Korean who married into a Japanese family and developed pretensions. He lives in a sprawling manor decorated in a hybrid of Japanese and English styles and distinguished by a cavernous library that houses his collection of rare and, from all indications, mostly erotic books. It’s there that he forces the fragile Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of his late wife, to read explicit stories aloud before a crowd of appreciative pervs. Though he’s lived with her since she was a child and is the closest she has to a family, Kouzuki still plans to marry her. But plans have a way of getting thwarted in this film.

Mostly they’re sidetracked by other plans, specifically that of Sook-hee and her partner-in-crime, a self-styled Count named Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha). Like Sook-hee, he’s a con artist, and one happy to work a plan for as long as it takes to pay off, especially if it means pushing Kouzuki out of the way, marrying Hideko, and confining Hideko to a madhouse. The payoff of a lifetime, after all, takes some work.

That plot description may sound like it gives away much of The Handmaiden, but by the time all these cards land on the table Park has just gotten started. Adapting the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and moving the action from Victorian England, Park slowly unspools twist after twist, letting his camera glide through the expansive halls, hidden pockets, and lush gardens of Kouzuki’s estate as Sook-hee works to win Hideko’s trust, and then takes her seduction a step further even as Count Fujiwara presses his case and attempts to win the heiress’ hand.

Like the novel, the film breaks into three parts, with each new section changing what we’ve seen before. And with each section, Park’s filmmaking becomes a little more gloriously florid: The camera movements grow a little more swooping and the edits a little more jarring. Park’s at once an amazingly controlled and a thrillingly daring director. He pairs the suspense-building discipline of a De Palma and Hitchcock disciple with the willingness to take his material to lurid extremes. That’s not immediately evident in the first acts of The Handmaiden, but by the time we get to the third the blood starts to flow freely and there’s a sex scene between the two female leads that seems determined to make viewers forget Blue is the Warmest color’s marathon lovemaking sequence. The film runs nearly two-and-a-half-hours, but that’s just the right amount of time for Park to turn up the heat a few degrees at a time.

Park made his name with what’s come to be known as the Vengeance Trilogy of Sympathy For Mr. VengeanceOldboy, and Lady Vengeance. He made his first foray into American filmmaking with 2013’s Stoker, a Hitchcock homage that found him expanding on some of the themes of retribution raised by those films. The Handmaiden finds him working with an even larger palette. Beneath the shocks and titillation there’s a real concern with women’s pleasure and freedom, the conspiracies needed to ensure them within the film’s constricted world, and what it takes to crawl out from beneath the sexual fantasies of the men who oppress them. Like the characters who populate it, its captivating surface doubles as a mask.