Park Chan-Wook specializes in movies that demand rewatching. The first time you sit down with his instantly iconic Oldboy, you’re so sucked into the its bombastic violence, mesmerizing mystery and tragic twist, that you might miss the sharply subversive and sick sense of humor laced through scenes of desperation, or the ragged but earnest thump of love that beats at its core. Similarly with Stoker, his English-language debut, you might be well into the second act before realizing its a class-skewing satire with bite. A second watch reveals the winks. A third (and fourth, and fifth…) is just gravy. Yet as stellar as those stunners are, Chan Wook has made his masterpiece with The Handmaiden.
On its surface, The Handmaiden is a psycho-sexual thriller that’s in turn erotic and horrifying. But what makes this adaptation of Sarah Waters’ class-conflict romance novel Fingersmith so richly fascinating, addictive and demanding of rewatchings are all that lies beneath is slick and sultry surface.
Chan-wook and co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung transport Waters’ story of forbidden love and lust from Victorian-Era England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. There, a conniving count (Ha Jung-woo) hires a Korean pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to act as handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee), so they can lure the seemingly naïve lady away from her controlling uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and into marriage. However, their profit-driven plan hits an unexpected snag when the deceptive handmaiden realizes she’s falling for her pretty prey.
The story might sound quaint. But this is Park Chan-wook. Nothing is quite what it seems. A master storyteller, Chan-wook teases audience expectation, subtly dropping clues along the way, leading to the mystery hidden at the center of the film. A dangling rope is never just a dangling rope! When its truth is revealed, you’ll gasp, marvel, and want to watch The Handmaiden again immediately. To be more specific would be to drop spoilers. So I won’t dare.
I will say The Handmaiden is like Oldboy meets Jane Austen, lush with violence (though more mental and emotional than physical), laced with rousing romance, and riveted with societal barbs. It’s a tricky balance that few films could pull off, yet Chan-wook’s cast does it with easy aplomb. Whether playing a moment of breathtaking brutality, jarring tenderness or guffaw-inducing gallows humor, the central ensemble doesn’t miss a beat. The film feels like a group dance number, where every step is perfectly laid, pounding out horror, pleasure and pain in an intoxicating rhythm. On top of all that, The Handmaiden is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
The sprawling mansion at its center is filled with stately rooms alive with texture, color and patterns. Its endangered heiress, drapes herself in delicious dresses, dazzling jewels, and delicate gloves. All of this man-made wonder plays against the tangles of nature that reach towards them with forests and cherry trees, vibrantly teasing escape. The stunning mis-en-scene of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon makes everything from the world’s most perverse puppet show, to a flirtatious tooth scraping, and even a tentacle porn tease visually exhilarating. Adding emotional pomp to the grand majesty of the production, strings swell in orchestrations that seem preciously plucked from England’s hit series Downton Abbey, neatly reflecting the class themes between these two otherwise very different properties. But there’s something distinctly beautiful in the leading ladies’ shared sex scenes.
A male director capturing lesbian sex can quite easily (and regrettably) go the way of bro fantasy and Male Gaze. But Chan-wook boldly took on this challenge and crafted love scenes that are rapturous and humane as well as deliciously sexy and kinky. Focusing on the pair’s pleasure and character-driven conversation makes for sex scenes with a sly whimsy that suits the story and also allows an all-too-rare and complex portrayal of girl-on-girl romance.
With this astonishing adaptation Chan-wook has taken his unique blend of brutality, beauty, humor and heart to dizzying new heights. The Handmaiden is a rapturous work of art that takes audiences on an intense and emotional journey full of surprises, sex and societal criticism. It’s an absolute joy to witness a film full to the brim with story, character, and visual majesty. This is the kind of movies that filmmakers will study for generations, and it’s easily the best film of the year, if not the decade.
Rating: All the burritos.
Image: Magnolia Pictures