There is something inescapably Western about Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, even though its adaptation of British novelist Sarah Waters' Fingersmith moves the setting to Japanese-colonized Korea in the 1930s. Its intertwining schemes and bungled cons recall Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder; its first half, with a brooding lower class heroine shipping off to a country manor has shades of Jane Eyre. The estate that serves as the primary setting of the action is a lumbering hybrid; half English manor (due to its proprietor's respect for the British Empire) half traditional Japanese home (for similar reasons.)
But by replacing the class system of Victorian England with the dynamic of the occupier and occupied, Park has tapped into something uniquely complex about a chapter of history that is rarely explored. There is a deep, festering malady at the heart of The Handmaiden, exacerbated by idle fantasy, cultural projection and denial. The men who torment the female heroines do so because they hate some part of themselves — a part of themselves they've been made to hate by circumstances larger than themselves.
The film is divided in three parts, each from a different perspective. A Korean criminal posing as a wealthy Japanese man who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo, bringing maximum Cary Grant charm) wishes to exact a sort of vengeance-by-proxy on Kouzuki, a Korean nobleman also posing as Japanese. His plan is to court and marry Kouzuki's Japanese niece and ward Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) and obtain his fortune, then commit her to a mental asylum. In the film's first act, he enlists the help of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a lowborn pickpocket, to take a job as Hideko's handmaiden, and convince her to wed Fujiwara. This becomes complicated when Sook-Hee falls in love with Hideko.
Less a star-crossed romance, and more of a revenge tale
Up until this point, things are chugging along fairly predictably — and prettily, thanks to the ravenous camera work of Park's longtime cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon. But the first third ends with Hideko and Fujiwara eloping, and a double-crossing that throws everything we've seen thus far into doubt. But in the second section we see the story through Hideko's perspective — including a startling revelation about what exactly she and her Japanophile uncle work on all day together (it's not what you think, not exactly) — and the film becomes less a story of star-crossed lovers and more a revenge tale (a Park specialty) for the objectified and belittled women at its center.
The women, by the way, are spectacular. Kim Tae-Ri is deeply lovable as Sook-hee; a wannabe hard-edged smart-aleck whose unmaskable emotions become the film's only trustworthy moral center. And as the brittle object of everyone's desire, Kim Min-Hee is, to use Fujiwara's words, mesmerizing — Sook-Hee refers to her as both a rotten bitch and a helpless innocent at different points in the film, and she wears both labels with fascinating instability. Both of them carry the film's frequent melodrama nimbly, as Park's often exhilarating dips into Looney Tunes-style slapstick pop up in everything from an attempted suicide to the numerous sex scenes.
The sex scenes are the most questionable aspect of the film — they are graphic, yes, but also clinical in a way that takes one out of the film. Like Blue is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden lets you get swept up in the romance between two women as they grow closer, until it's time for consummation, at which point it becomes painfully obvious that we are watching a film directed by a straight male. The sequences are frequently shot in full-body so that the entire sex position can be observed at once (aside from one frame that appears to be shot from the perspective of one character's vagina). It's a clear callback to the erotic woodblocks Hideko's uncle obsessively collects, but jarring nonetheless.
Park makes the puzzle-like plotting look easy
And it's a strange visual to echo, especially by the end when we learn that her uncle's love of all things Japanese — their language, their interior design, their porn — is because he feels that it is inherently more beautiful and desirable than the art and language of his own culture. But it seems the unattainability is what turns him on more than anything — he'll never be Japanese, just as he will never touch Hideko, despite psychosexually abusing her for years. His collection is eventually destroyed in a cathartic sequence that is difficult to parse — the books clearly represent a façade in need of tearing down, but the image is impossible to divorce from a book burning.
Not that anyone could ever accuse Park of being anti-obscenity, especially after watching The Handmaiden, in which characters stick everything from bells to knives in their orifices, and at one point simulate sex on a suspended wooden mannequin. The consensual scenes are executed with joy and creativity, if voyeuristically. But the hottest scene in the whole film is probably its tamest, involving little more than a thimble and a tooth. It's a reminder that Park doesn't need to bring the X-rated fireworks to still be capable of producing edge-of-your-seat tension out of shared glances, and the deceptive simplicity of a good edit. The Handmaiden's puzzle-like plot makes such fine-tuning look easy. But many of its more difficult thematic questions are left provocatively unanswered.
The Handmaiden opens in limited U.S. release on October 21.