After making his English-language debut with the critically divisive Southern gothic thriller Stoker, South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook returns to his native language to bring us a slice of erotica with his new film, The Handmaiden.
Taking its cues from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from the Victorian era to 1930's Korea under Japanese rule, The Handmaiden tells the intricately woven story of a Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) who seeks to take advantage of the beautiful and wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim min-hee).
The con man enlists the help of a lowly pickpocket by the name of Nam Sock-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as a maid to the heiress. Sock-hee's task is simple enough; to gain the trust of the fair lady and help convince her to fall for the con man so he can inherit said fortune. However, complications arise as the Handmaiden finds herself falling for the fair lady. Thus begins a complicated tale of who's screwing who, both literally and figuratively speaking.
Director Park wisely splits this lurid tale into three separate chapters, each of which exemplifies a different perspective. The first chapter told from the perspective of Sock-hee as she infiltrates the lavish manor and gains the fair maiden's trust. Initially, she is all about the task at hand, but as time progresses, she begins to feel a palpable sexual tension between herself and the fair lady. As such, a new found sense of guilt and jealousy arise as the handmaiden grows both resentful and remorseful towards the conman's end game.
Through the eyes of Sock-hee, we initially perceive Lady Hideko to be a naive child trapped in a woman's body. However, the second chapter switches perspectives to Hideko, where Director Park fills in the blanks of her traumatic upbringing under the tutelage of her perverted uncle. Having been exposed from a young age to her uncle's love of BDSM, she is frequently made to regale the written works of Marquis de Sade to seedy-looking men of wealth in the manor's library.
Meanwhile, the third chapter brings it all home through the perspective of the conman, which is ripe with revelations and plot turns best left unspoiled.
At its core, The Handmaiden is a rather simple tale of deceit, love, and vengeance. But perhaps most importantly, it is a tale of sexual liberation. Since I'm not the first to mention this, yes, the film does feature scenes of explicit lesbianism. And yes, Park definitely pulls no punches when it comes to showing. However, he doesn't just show just for the sake of showing, or for mere titillation.
Rather, the budding sexual tension shared between both women is the central key to their shared plight. At its core, The Handmaiden is a tale of two women who came from less than pleasant upbringings who long for a sense of freedom. Kim Tae-Ri and Kim Min-hee both give incredible performances and do very well to sell a palpable amount of friction.
The Handmaiden features all of Park Chan-Wook's usual flourishes. It is visually stunning in every inch of its design. From the sense of foreboding decadence that haunts every inch of the manor to the impeccable framing choices employed by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon.
Although it's not without flaws. Unusually so, Director Park annoyingly feels the need to over-explain every last plot detail by spinning the plot wheel one too many times. However, there's no denying the denouement's cleverness, nor can one deny the overwhelming sense of satisfaction gained. In the end, The Handmaiden is both a well-crafted character study and a captivating erotic thriller that leaves its mark.