The twisted mind of Park Chan-wook returns with “The Handmaiden,” a violently sensuous costume drama set in 1930s Korea. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ Victorian era caper novel, “Fingersmith,” “The Handmaiden” intersects the bourgeoisie aura of Western high society with the East’s tranquil yet honorable passivity. What emerges is a bloodbath pitting two lovers against the deplorable nature of male hegemony. Sook-hee and Lady Hideko – played ferociously brilliant by respective actors Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee – successfully avoid the problematic “vengeful lesbian” trope. Their anticipated consummation is graphic and visually prolonged, but never without depth or narrative intent. A Palme d’Or contender, “The Handmaiden” is a marvelous descent into the depraved world of aristocracy.
Thirty years into the 20th century and Korea finds itself under siege by Japanese occupation. The war is over…for now…but its citizens are prisoners in servant’s clothing. Those too poor or uneducated to be of service are relegated to the streets, hustling their way to survive.
One such family is offered the chance to share in some of the new wealth pouring into the country. A family friend posing as a count offers Sook-hee the opportunity to serve as handmaiden to Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress to an exorbitant fortune. All Sook-hee has to do is convince Hideko to marry “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who plans to throw his presumptive wife into an insane asylum after her riches legally become his. Sook-hee’s reward for participating in this heist is ownership of Hideko’s jewelry and clothing. For Sook-hee and her family, even this minimal compensation would keep them out of the slums for good.
“The Handmaiden” is structured into three acts. The first assumes the perspective of Sook-hee; the second unfolds the same events but through the eyes of Lady Hideko. Lastly, the shortest and final act presents the aftermath of the schism that splits the women apart. Upon meeting Hideko, Sook-hee is taken by her Lady’s innocence and beauty. “Unnatural” feelings subsequently begin to emerge that blur the pair’s hierarchical relationship. All the while, audiences are teased with impending danger from a forbidden library outside the grand estate. Hideko’s creepy, book-obsessed Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) – a man of Korean descent who married Hideko’s late aunt – uses the library as a stage for unspeakable horrors. The further Chan-wook pulls back the curtain of mystery, the more unbearable the truth becomes.
“The Handmaiden’s” elaborate plotting and Hitchcockian twists keep audiences guessing everyone’s master plan right until the bittersweet finale. No matter if Sook-hee and Hideko earn our trust one moment and lose it the next, their airtight chemistry is never in doubt. As it turns out, the heart is the only part of the human spirit that never lies. While “The Handmaiden” largely ignores the ramifications of homosexuality during this period, the film’s gender politics are brutally explicated. Audiences bear witness to men of all forms, men who are certain they’re adhering to principle and social regularity. Chan-wook’s erotic thriller posits that these men are simply using such pretext to justify their perversion. As such, “The Handmaiden” gives a powerful, tragic new meaning to the act of “being a gentleman.”
Moreover, Sook-hee and Hideko’s co-ownership of the story guarantees them a rare voice of female victimization at the hands of men. In one of the film’s most uncomfortable confrontations, Hideko retorts that being sexually assaulted into lovemaking is not the “turn-on” for females that men have assumed for eons. Chan-wook even goes as far as to make a literal reference to the way conquerors write their own history. Erotic literature, for instance, is exhibited here as scripture for men to follow and women to obey. Chan-wook’s purpose is to cast a spotlight on the terror beneath the facade of female obedience, the origins of which are unfathomable but nevertheless an intrinsic part of history.
The great Cho Young-wuk’s masterful score heightens an already maddening milieu. Moreover, Chung-hoon’s intimate framing is an indelible example of cinematography mirroring audience fascination. Furthermore, the film’s set design and color palette is as extravagant as it is immersive, whisking us away to a time that masks darkness with vibrant elegance. In sum, “The Handmaiden” makes no apologies for its graphic depictions of violence and sex. To sanitize the truth would only contradict its worth. Thrilling to the end and fleetingly sincere of heart, “The Handmaiden” is troubling yet vital cinema that empowers female perspective to the fullest.
“The Handmaiden” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios and is scheduled to be released in New York City and Los Angeles on Oct. 21.