Korean director Chan-wook Park (the auteur behind 2003’s excellently unsettling Oldboy) takes another twisted trip down the rabbit hole of bizarre familial relations and erotic intrigue with The Handmaiden, a period piece exploring love, betrayal and the gloriously enjoyable cinematic double-cross in 1930s Korea.
A clever grifter named Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) has painstakingly devised a plot to marry a crazy rich young noblewoman named Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) by posing as a Japanese count. Once he’s got her hand, he’ll commit Hideko to a madhouse, thereby claiming her vast fortune. It’s a two-person job, though, and Fujiwara enlists the help of a young thief named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), who assumes the role of Hideko’s handmaiden so as to gently nudge her toward marrying the bastard. The plan seems simple enough but, wouldn’t you know it, Hideko is kind of spooky and maybe smarter than she lets on, and her perverse uncle Kozuki (Jin-woong Jo) has trained her since she was a child to read erotic stories aloud to groups of similarly pervy rich guys at swanky auction-like events. From the suicide of her aunt to her uncle’s massive library of sex stories, shit’s weird at Hideko’s house, but Sook-Hee starts to fall in love, all the while dealing with the count’s lust for money and the creepy goings-on at the estate.
Park tells the tale in three chapters, each showing the story from a different angle with differing backstories that explain each character’s motives. It’s outrageously fun to guess at what’s going on from vignette to vignette, and little tidbits and seemingly unexplainable events become major plot points and “aha!” moments. At just under two-and-a-half hours, there is much to digest and more than a couple twists we don’t see coming, but the execution is so masterful that we never lose track of the over-arching story. No easy feat, but Park’s deft directorial hand keeps things just uncomfortable enough yet palatable.
Min-hee Kim and Kim Tae-ri’s onscreen chemistry is the stuff of cinematic legend, a perfect blend of overpowering lust and passionate love so believable and so intense that it’s almost difficult to watch, yet we cannot look away. Park grasps even the ugly elements of love such as irrational jealousy or the darker side of sexuality. It’s difficult to tell who’s conning whom, but that just keeps things interesting right up to the satisfying conclusion, and even when we’re positive we know how the chips may fall, our assumptions generally prove misguided.
Jo’s portrayal of Hideko’s unhinged uncle does err dangerously toward hammy over-acting territory, but he maintains a perfectly creepy and overbearing presence throughout; a sort of auxiliary villain who looms threateningly in the background at all times and adds further suspense. Thus, The Handmaiden becomes a multi-layered juxtaposition between sex and violence—an uncomfortable premise for some, certainly, but the type of story that practically forces us to examine our own sexual issues—especially the weird ones—and keeps us guessing the whole damn time.
Directed by Park
With Ha, Kim, Tae-Ri and Jo
Center for Contemporary Arts,