How exactly is one to describe the experience of seeing Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden? What is the best way to tackle the labyrinthine plot, conflicting tones and shifting stories at work here? How does one write about a movie that has the ability to leave its viewer dumbfounded for hours trying to couch the audacity of it all in the brain? Murmurs of the film arose from its premier at Cannes and its screenings at various other summer/fall festivals, but a director as renowned as Park Chan-wook shouldn’t need hype to drive people to his film. Indeed, The Handmaiden is the sort of film that benefits from knowing as little about it as possible, making the task of the reviewer a difficult one. But not an impossible one.
The basics are straightforward enough. Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, alongside co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung (using a mix of Korean and Japanese, which different colored subtitles to designate each), has taken the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith and shifted the setting from Victorian Britain to Korea in the 1930’s. A con man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) seeks to steal the inheritance of a young heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) by hiring a small town pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to infiltrate the Lady’s life as her new handmaiden. She is to establish trust and influence, allowing her to convince Hideko to elope with the Count so he can gain access to her inheritance, take her away from her family and institutionalize her, thus claiming it all for himself and splitting the profits with Sook-hee. The plan seems to be going swimmingly, with Sook-hee effortlessly manipulating Hideko into the exact position she needs to be. But things are not always what they seem, both with Hideko and her domineering uncle, Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), and getting away scot free will be much more difficult than Fujiwara and Sook-hee ever anticipated, especially as Sook-hee and Hideko strike up a romance.
The plot sounds like a pretty standard con man or espionage story, but The Handmaiden has more twists than a John le Carre novel. Allegiances shift, identities change and hidden knowledge is revealed, with a lot of story to unfurl over two hours and twenty-five minutes. What separates it from the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the perhaps surprising sense of whimsy Park injects into the proceedings. He has flirted with comedy before, most notably with I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay, but much of Park’s audience, especially in the States, are likely more familiar with Oldboy and the rest of the vengeance trilogy or his English language debut Stoker and might not be expecting the first act of The Handmaiden to play out like a slapstick comedy of manners, and a startlingly effective one. For the first hour of the film, this is legitimately one of the funniest films of 2016, generating multiple laugh out loud moments through dramatic irony and a whole host of farcical hidden and misplaced identity shenanigans. It’s an arresting approach to the material; Park easily could have presented the film with a more humorless bent, and there’s nothing about the plot that screams comedy. But that’s the sort of director Park Chan-wook can be, disarming his audience with odd choices, and the silliness of it all sets the table wonderfully for the rest of the story.
It’s not all fun and games for the whole movie, and there are plenty of moments where the Oldboy/Stoker Park Chan-wook dusts himself off and twists the knife a bit. It is rather impressive that he can juggle the myriad of tones at play in The Handmaiden, from humor and subterfuge to romance (both real and imagined) to mystery to thriller to horror and almost everything in between. What unifies it all is a heavy undercurrent of pulp and expectation that serves as the bedrock regardless of what film genre is dominant from one moment to the next. The flirtation and dance of seduction between the two leading ladies is reminiscent of Blue is the Warmest Color (it shares a similar penchant for drawn out explicit sex scenes), but the audacity of it all ensures The Handmaiden stands entirely on its own. And with striking production design from Ryu Seong-hie and dependably sumptuous cinematography from long-time ally to Park Chan-wook Chung Chung-hoon, the world of 1930’s Korea is fresh and vibrant, an eye-catching melange of style that informs the substance.
It’s easy to think of Bong Joon-ho as South Korea’s resident mischievous director thanks to his work on the deliciously bizarre The Host and Snowpiercer (even the dark as night Memories of Murder has plenty of levity to be found), but The Handmaiden is a potent reminder that Park Chan-wook is more than capable of handling his own in the playfulness department. It is a wild ride, chock full of twists and turns, lies and more lires, and more shifting allegiances than any sane story could expect. Throw in a story structure that plays fast and loose with linear storytelling and Park has cooked up one of the more gratifyingly off kilter and bizarre releases of the year (and this year, with the likes of The Neon Demon and The Wailing hasn’t exactly been a quiet one). The three leads are fantastic, so at home inside this thorny, complex world that often requires playing the same scene from different perspectives, and it is impressive how well things end up by the time the credits roll. Some may be turned off by The Handmaiden’s old school pulp sensibilities and tonal shifts. Others might find the explicit sex to be too much to handle. Make no mistake: The Handmaiden asks a lot from its audience to keep pace with Mr. Park’s wild ride, but the rewards for doing so are generous indeed. A joy.