Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden represents a profound leap for the South Korean director in terms of artistic patience. Rather than turning the figurative dial up to 11 out of the gate, unleashing a string of barely unified and self-consciously outré shock effects, Park establishes a seductive mood that blooms intimately and poignantly out of his characters’ hungers. His craftsmanship is so quietly masterful that one wonders, especially after the uncharacteristically bland Stoker, if he’s transitioned decisively from a purveyor of outlandish genre cinema into a more or less un-ironic classicist. In The Handmaiden, Park achieves what eluded him in Stoker, investing a domestic gothic with his sense of roiling emotional obsession.
The setting cleverly adapts the political concerns of the English drawing-room mystery (and certain film genres that have grown out of the form) to 1930s-era Korea, which was united under colonialist Japanese rule. As the characters of an English mystery are occupied with class, The Handmaiden’s protagonists have identities that are informed by their country’s subservience. Most of the characters in this film are Korean, but see Japan as a cultural superior, placing them in a servant mindset whether or not they literally belong to that caste. Complicating matters further are the issues of patriarchal oppression that reliably haunt the world all over: The men, eaten up with inferiority issues, rule the women, who’re shackled with attending complexes that are rooted both in nationality and gender. Yet the women, not afforded the privilege of taking even domestic power for granted, devise political workarounds that flatter the men, distracting and placating them for hidden dominion.
Park has been applauded as a political filmmaker who filters Korea’s tormented cultural history through his ultraviolent films—a claim this critic has often found to be born of opportunism and wishful thinking. It’s always been evident that Park is a talented artist, as there are moments in each of his films of powerful originality, but the glee he’s taken in staging his atrocities has often scanned as desperate and off-putting. In The Handmaiden, Park appears to be liberated by the confines of working within the pageantry of a period costume narrative dictated by ornate etiquette and custom, building ferociously erotic set pieces out of the sanding down of teeth or the teaching of drafting classes. Watching this film, it feels as if Park has longed to be constrained so as to be freed of clutter, which establishes a quasi-meta parallel with the unsolicited constraint his characters suffer.
Park is a fussy, almost anal-retentive formalist at heart, and that quality serves The Handmaiden. Even, or especially, when nothing much seems to be happening in the film, we feel through the blocking a great sense of emotional constriction, particularly in Park’s characteristic preoccupation with visual symmetry. The Korean mansion setting, designed to honor both Japanese and English imperialism, is often framed in long, precisely balanced shots that affirm the rigidity of the household, which is governed by perverted and curdled masculinity. These compositions are contrasted with telling moments of asymmetry and with bursts of watercolor extravagance that illustrate the passion that’s straining to break through the cultural floodgates, and said potential bursting is occasionally signaled by a jokey Park flourish—a cutaway to a juicy peach being bitten into, a shot of lights flickering on and off—that deepens the mood rather than dissipating it.
The plot, adapted from Sarah Winters’s Victorian Era-set novel Fingersmith, pivots on a traditionally intricate game of deception, familiar to con and espionage narratives, which is fueled by the notion of love that’s triggered unexpectedly by manipulation and greed. As the film opens, the impetuous Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) has been taken on as the new maid for Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), the niece of Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo), an aging man of arts and letters who made his wealth as a Korean-Japanese translator and who married up, per his own estimation, by taking a Japanese wife, Lady Hideko’s long deceased aunt. Hideko is actually the possessor of the wealth though, which Kouzuki intends to obtain by marrying her. But Sook-hee is after the money too, as she’s a pickpocket and undercover thief, working with a con man, The Count (Jung-woo Ha), who’s trying to seduce Sook-hee while Kouzuki presumably fiddles with his highbrow Japanese literature readings.
It takes Park a few moments to find his tonal groove, as he initially works laboriously through exposition to establish the intricately ricocheting motivations, but the film intensifies when it settles down on Sook-hee and Hideko, who suggest classic Hitchcock and Lynch heroines in their contrast of outer accommodation and submerged bitterness and longing. The relationship that develops between the women resembles the central union of Mulholland Drive, another romance built on fantasy that became reality only to be cruelly revealed yet again as fantasy. As in that film, identities are fluid in The Handmaiden: Sook-hee appears to serve as the tough, experienced foil to Hideko’s naïve, nearly imprisoned virgin, but those impressions are ultimately rooted in what each party yearns to see within the other.
A remarkable pair of set pieces explodes our notions of Sook-hee and Hideko’s identities. After suffering from delicious, agonizing tension, the women have sex under the pretense that Sook-hee is training Hideko for an encounter with the Count. Sucking a lollipop beforehand to flavor her lips, Sook-hee kisses Hideko, and their fooling around culminates in passionate fondling that climaxes with a chaste suggestion of cunnilingus. The scene is purplish and romantic, rooted in Sook-hee’s harlequin fantasies of Hideko’s inexperience and quite purposefully staged as a lush “lipstick lesbian” encounter. But we only see half the scene from Sook-hee’s point of view.
Later, after a game-changing twist, we see the rest of the encounter from Hideko’s perspective, and it’s framed as an even more pronouncedly erotic thrashing of limbs and grinding of groins that acknowledges the actual physical practicalities of two women getting one another off. At this point, we know that there’s more to Hideko than meets the eye, and so the scene has been correspondingly stripped of a fantastical “innocence,” though the passion remains, because that element is eventually confirmed to be authentic. Park merges sex-movie clichés with a game of compare and contrast to arrive at a stunning metaphor for the tragedy and comedy of sex: that we’re never entirely on the same page, as our perceptions are skewed by expectations and private baggage as well as by physical and emotional desire.
The splitting and bookending of this love scene is the most amazing sequence of Park’s career, but he doesn’t quite manage to build the rest of the film out from it. The Handmaiden pivots on an audacious structural flourish, spending most of its second half retelling the opening from a different perspective, but it grows cluttered with gimmickry. There’s one twist too many, redefining the narrative’s redefinition of its reality to the point of elaborate meaninglessness, reducing Sook-hee and Hideko to standard-issue avengers. And the male characters, never too interesting to begin with, become raw meat for a well-staged yet disappointingly familiar series of Grand Guignol routines. With The Handmaiden, Park has made a gigantic leap as an artist, but he retreats to lurid cartoonishness just as he’s earned your trust.