A sexy, stylish, surprisingly intelligent thriller that demands to be seen at least twice.
October 13, 2016
Built on implausible plot twists and steamy lesbian sex, at a glance South Korean thriller The Handmaiden doesn't exactly cry out to be taken seriously. Frankly, it's part of the genius of director Park Chan-wook that the film can be enjoyed as nothing more than a piece of arthouse pulp – albeit an immensely stylish and entertaining one. But look beneath the B-movie trappings and you'll uncover a deceptive intelligence. At its core, this is a film about the unspoken link between seduction and deception, as well as the collective male sexual ego that has been warped and inflated by the consumption of way too much porn.
After dipping his toes into the English-language market with the neo-gothic Stoker, Park seems to be much more at home back in South Korea working in his native tongue. Ironically, The Handmaiden is actually based on the novel Fingersmith by UK author Sarah Waters. The location has been changed from Victorian-era England to 1930s Korea, but the story remains more or less the same: a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) becomes the handmaiden of a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) with the aim of helping a con-man (Ha Jung-woo) seduce her and steal her fortune. But loyalties are soon tested, and motivations blurred, when the two women fall in love with each other instead.
That's just the first of the film's three distinctive chapters, but to reveal anything more would be to ruin all the fun. Suffice it to say, over the course of a breezily paced two-and-a-half hours, Park leads the audience down a winding road of perspective shifts, flashbacks and preposterous twists – some of which are predictable, some of which are not. Regardless of how much you see coming, you would do well to suspend your disbelief, because The Handmaiden goes to some fairly unlikely places. Yet no matter how silly it gets, the story and the characters are never anything less than enthralling. It's the kind of movie we'd happily watch twice in one sitting – and unlike many films that rely on surprise revelations, we can confirm that it actually gets better the second time around.
Repeat viewings will no doubt be aided by the movie's exquisite appearance. The Handmaiden is without question one of the most beautiful looking films of the year, the work of a master in complete control of his craft. The images ooze sensuality long before anybody gets naked, with every camera move and close-up an act of cinematic seduction. The costumes, sets and natural locations are stunning without exception.
Park exhibits a similar level of control over the film's fluid tone, which shifts from silly to sexy, from funny to frightening, from depraved to uplifting, without ever missing a beat. By every measure it's his most assured work to date. To compare him to an American contemporary in David Fincher, if the violent cult hit Oldboy was Park's Fight Club, then The Handmaiden is his Gone Girl – less raw, more elegant and all the more subversive for its (comparatively) restrained approach. As restrained as a film with several explicit lesbian sex scenes can be, anyway.
Like Fincher's recent masterpiece (come at me), The Handmaiden is a tale of female empowerment masquerading as something much more tawdry. At times, perhaps, it fits the part a little too well, with the aforementioned sex scenes playing an awful lot like heterosexual male fantasy. Then again, at least the film depicts lesbian sex and romance as just that: sexy and romantic. The same certainly cannot be said of the erotic forays made by the movie's various men.
Indeed, whether it's a self-described seduction expert mansplaining to a woman what women want in a man, or a group of high society types listening with rapt, sweaty attention to a reading from an erotic novel, The Handmaiden mocks common male attitudes towards women and sex, both of which it posits are at least partially linked to lurid fantasies pedaled by pornographers. Contemporary studies around online porn and its impact on adolescent boys suggest the movie is right on the money. As for those men who seek to exploit or prey upon women? Let's just say that, by the time the story ends, the ladies make sure they get their just desserts.
Park's cast is uniformly terrific, but special attention must be given to Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee. In a film that has so much to do with the performative nature of sexual relationships, and how we shape and cultivate our image and behaviour in order to meet (or sometimes hoodwink) the expectations of a potential mate, their marvelous, multi-layered performances are the glue that holds everything else together. Like the puzzle-box plot and immaculate aesthetic, their work is packed with levels of hidden intent that make the second viewing of The Handmaiden even more rewarding than the first.