Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a fiendishly clever, sinfully funny con-job melodrama, the kind that keeps yanking the rug out from under everyone on screen and off. If that’s all the film was, it would still be a must-see, at least for those who don’t mind a little graphic violence and kinky sex to go with their misdirection. But for all its twists, turns, and betrayals, the most shocking thing about the film is that it’s also, quite possibly and quite improbably, the year’s most genuinely romantic movie. That’s right: The extreme South Korean director of Oldboy and Stoker has made a love story, one where the lovers aren’t related or vampires or anything! To get to it, you just have to peel back all the layers of deception, just like the characters do.
The movie is based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, with which Park takes some creative liberties, including moving the story from Victorian era Britain to the Korea of the 1930s, when the country was occupied by the Japanese. Tamako (newcomer Kim Tae-ri), a poor villager, is hired to serve as the new handmaiden for wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Right Now, Wrong Then’s Kim Min-hee), who lives with her old, lecherous uncle (Cho Jin-woong) at a vast country estate. No sooner has the young woman arrived, however, than Park cues up the first of many flashbacks, revealing that Tamako is actually (dramatic pause) Sook-hee, a pickpocket working with a con man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to cheat the heiress out of her fortune. The plan involves convincing Lady Hideko to marry the count, then throwing her into a loony bin and splitting the inheritance. There’s just one tiny little snag: The two women have gotten closer and closer—and Sook-hee may be falling in love with her mark.
That, of course, isn’t the half of it, not even close. Like any good grifter, Park has tons of tricks up his sleeve. The film borrows the source novel’s multipart structure, swapping perspective from Sook-hee to Lady Hideko, with the latter also taking over voice-over duties from the former. This is when The Handmaiden starts giddily doubling back on itself, replaying scenes from telling new vantage points and radically altering their context. It’s also when the movie really starts letting its erotic freak flag fly: Explicit sex scenes are doubled (and made more explicit), wooden sex dolls are straddled, and proto-tentacle-porn The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife makes an appearance. In reshaping the material to his preoccupations, the director of the Vengeance Trilogy even finds room for some sadistic, payback violence (let’s just say the novel’s title gains new meaning), though this nasty bit of business is probably the least surprising (and least satisfying) element of a movie that keeps redefining its own trajectory.
At close to two and a half hours, The Handmaiden is a full meal: as wildly, perversely entertaining as Park’s big breakthrough, Oldboy, but with much more complex characters. The director takes naturally to the sweep and scale of a big period production, reveling in lavish 1930s couture and letting regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon virtuosically glide across every art-directed inch of the heiress’ manor, which one person describes as a hybrid of Japanese and Western architecture. (This is a movie about characters constantly watching and even spying on each other, which means the camera often assumes a voyeuristic point of view, even when Chung isn’t filming through peepholes and cracks in doors.) The Handmaiden is also frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, its crooked sense of humor built around the neurotic inner thoughts of these duplicitous schemers, caught off guard by their own desires and shifting sympathies. Based on the evidence presented here, Park could do wonders with Shakespearean comedy, though he’d probably rather try his hand at the revenge-plot grotesqueries of, say, Titus Andronicus.
Front and center are two tremendous actresses, lending a core of human feeling to this knotty series of reveals and reversals. Neither Sook-hee nor Lady Hideko are quite who they seem; both are playing parts, playing naive, to get what they want, and this allows the Kims to essentially layer their performances, revealing startling new dimensions as their disguises are torn away. There’s a stirring feminist edge to Park’s gonzo adaptation, in which two women, oppressed by the predatory men in their lives, learn to twist games of identity and manipulation to their advantage. Thankfully, that element is also entirely compatible with the film’s sneakily sincere romance, bolstered by Jo Yeong-wook’s unforgettably gorgeous score. One common problem with con-artist movies is that they tend to sacrifice emotional involvement on the altar of their own cleverness, the characters taking a back seat to the twisty plot machinations. The Handmaiden breaks with its genre by locating a moving, maybe even profound point between the lines of its uproarious hustle: that it’s possible to look past a person’s facades to see the soul simmering underneath.