Synopsis: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her. (Source)
Stories, people and ideas change with perspective, a premise that South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook employs perfectly in his latest film, The Handmaiden. If you’re already a fan of the director, then you know to expect the unexpected, and that’s certainly the case here, with Park adapting Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith with perverse glee. A heist film on the outset, the story’s relentless twists avoid genre convention, picking apart its characters to reveal swindlers trapped by their own dishonesty. In fitting form, Park proves that his skill for labyrinthian plotting and psychological torment are still second to none, pulling great performances from stars Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee, and turning an oft-times sordid tale of lust and revenge into an exploration of female empowerment. Brimming with palpable sensuality and existential dread, this atypical romance is another welcomed addition to Park’s undefinable body of work, bursting with both absurdity and surprising empathy.
Set amidst the Japanese occupation of 1930’s Korea, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a petty pickpocket with little to her name. Opportunity knocks in the form of a swindler named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Posing as a count, Fujiwara’s target is a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who lives alone in a wealthy estate. The plan is for Sook-Hee to pose as an unassuming handmaiden, convincing her to marry Fujiwara so that the pair can steal her inheritance. Though everything is going according to plan, Hideko surprises Sook-Hee; frail and insecure, she’s a shell of a woman living in fear of an oppressive uncle. It’s here when unexpected feelings develop between the two, and what should’ve been an easy job, turns out to be something much more complex.
Using narrative slight of hand and told in three distinct acts, the joy of Park’s latest film is that it’s rarely what it seems to be. Flooded with suppressed emotions, erotic tension and endlessly shifting viewpoints, Park’s film is a lot of things at once, transforming every time you think you’ve got it figured out. It’s a mystery, revenge thriller and class study, wrapped within a romance that seeks to liberate its characters from a self-destructive cycle of abuse and degradation. Through this, Park excels at showcasing how his trio of broken souls are divided by class but united by their lust for power and identity. Sex is a big aspect of the film, naturally, being used graphically as both an abusive tool and an expression of freedom. I have a feeling this will divide audiences, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from Park. Ideally, this is the type of film that’s best when you just go with it, allowing yourself get lost in the fragrance of its trickery, as the surreal nature of its images and hidden motivations grow more perverse and wildly intoxicating. Ultimately, Park never misses an opportunity to laugh at the depravity hidden beneath the surface, but is also in love with his metaphorical monsters, utilizing an opulent exterior to mask each characters’ tormented souls and grotesque fantasies, if only fleetingly.
Making the film so devilishly addicting, are the performances of Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee as Sook-Hee and Hideko, respectively. As the naive and demure, yet desperate Sook-Hee, Tae-ri is our emotional anchor, someone we initially relate to even if we are conflicted by her treachery. There’s an innocence to her that betrays her subterfuge, and as her world crumbles, we feel for her. As Hideko, Min-hee emotes and expresses with the utmost subtlety. We only get to see her from afar for the film’s first half, and she convincingly keeps us guessing as to who she is and what she wants. In many ways, it feels like she delivers two performances, contrasting with each act until the film’s gradual reveals catch up to her. It’s fascinating to see her transform throughout, and she pivots with understated nuance. As count Fujiwara, Ha Jung-woo is a formidable foil to the women he keeps company with, acting cool and composed while remaining unwittingly out of step with reality. Ha is exactly what the role needs, bringing a duality that straddles the line between intimidating and fragile. Jo Jin-woong as Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki is frightening whenever he steps in. There’s a glint in his eyes that always points toward the devilish, always evoking an understated amount of dread.
The Handmaiden is a slick, twisted experience like only Park could deliver. It’s a film that looks to the darkest parts of our soul, attempting to understand the vices we perpetuate and a toxic masculinity that’s become the norm. Of course, Park’s use of sexual abandon will be scrutinized, as it should be, urging us to look past taboo with a squirm-worthy conclusion that delights through an appropriately uneasy mix of exploitation and bloody aplomb. In essence, fans of Park will find plenty to love, and the uninitiated will be challenged according to their comfort level. For all intents and purposes, Park seems to, again, have found a way to have his cake and eat it too.