Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Chung Seo-Kyung and Park Chan-wook (screenplay), Sarah Waters (novel)
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Jo Jin-woong
Though its narrative sleights of hand are many, what sustains The Handmaiden is its over-the-top eroticism and its twisted sense of humor. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a lavish and elaborate con movie set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea; the target, at first, is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress living at the villa. A con-man posing as a Count (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) to work as a handmaiden and help him persuade the heiress to marry him.
She’s instructed to talk the Count up after each of his meetings with Hideko, to make subtle, off-handed remarks, like how her toenails are growing faster than usual since he’s arrived (a sure sign of true love). Once married, the Count will have the power to have Hideko declared insane and thrown in the madhouse so they can steal her fortune.
Carnal attraction throws a spectacular wrench in the plan, though. “Why didn’t he tell me how pretty she is?” Sook-Hee says to herself soon after meeting Hideko. As the heiress bathes in a tub sprinkled with rose petals, Sook-Hee’s eyes (and Park’s camera) linger on her bare breasts as she smacks on a lollipop. Sook-Hee becomes more and more enraptured, and begins to obstruct the Count’s plan rather than help him.
Park builds the first part of the movie around Sook-Hee’s conflicting impulses regarding her mission and her attraction to her mark. Hideko seems to harbor her own subdued feelings, too, and it isn’t long after the lollipop-sucking rose bath that she invites Sook-Hee to share her bed. (She says it’s to help ward off her recurring nightmares). The two begin talking about how she would make love with the Count if they were married, which escalates into more showing than telling. For reasons that become clear in the second act, Hideko’s pleasure is deliberately avoided here, and the scene is shot almost entirely around Sook-Hee’s experience as she explores her employer’s body.
The twist that ends The Handmaiden’s first act is a predictable one, but the ones that follow it are not. More importantly, they take the story backwards and deepen its characters. It’s here that Hideko becomes much more than a distant, sexualized cipher. Flashbacks to her childhood reveal a life of seclusion and torment at the hands of her evil, perverted uncle (Jo Jin-woong). He keeps her trapped at the villa for years under threat of torture, making her recite erotic stories to groups of horny male guests. When he’s going to be out of town, he reminds her that if she acts out or tries to escape she’ll end up in “the basement,” his drab, grayish torture chamber that’s at odds with the rest of the villa’s ornate interiors.
There are times when the retelling of events from other characters’ perspectives feels redundant, or like Park is underlining things one too many times to make sure we realize how clever the movie is. The shift to include more of Hideko’s point of view is crucial to its payoff, though. As the nature of the movie’s con shifts, Park luxuriates in crossing and double crossing his characters, in observing their secret chats and stolen glances. It’s clear he enjoys teasing the kink out of the period setting. He tells The Handmaiden like he’s lacing a corset, tightening the narrative until its combination of dread and desire feel suffocating, then taking a knife and slicing it open.