Sumptuous, perverse and exquisite, The Handmaiden, by Korean auteur Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), is one of my favorite movies this year -- a big, bold tale, the story of an epic swindle, a Chinese box of plot twists and a refreshingly compelling erotic story with a feminist streak.
Holding such disparate strands together is an heroic if not an impossible task, but director Park tells the intricate story with humor, suspense, feeling, and finesse.
The excellent screenplay is by Park and Seo-Kyung Chung, based on a novel by Sarah Waters, which has been transposed from Victorian England to Japan-occupied Korea.
In 1930's Korea, a con man pretends to be a Japanese count in order to woo a beautiful, rich Japanese woman into marriage and then abscond with her money. For that purpose, he plants a young swindler to be the lady's servant and convince her fall for him. That nothing goes as planned is an understatement. As the story unspools amid ravishing beauty, we learn that nothing is what it seems.
This is the story of a major con, told in three parts, from the point of view of each of the main characters. The second chapter is a retelling of the first but from the point of view of a different character. Watching the same scenes from a different point of view adds enormous richness and amusement to our understanding of the story.
But it is also the story of strong women controlled by a male-dominated system. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is the niece of a cruel and perverse man who is obsessed with books (it turns out that his obsession is not as healthy as it seems), and her handmaiden Tamako is also controlled by a crook. The women seem to be pawns in the designs of these men, but they are strong and willful and they can see which way the wind blows. They are the main characters and they imagine a different narrative for their destinies.
What makes the movie delicious are the revelations that Park keeps coming at the audience, which for the most part, are truly surprising. At almost two hours and a half, the film is enormously entertaining and holds you in its spell. The entire movie is an elaborate tease. I usually have no patience for movies that tease the audience, but The Handmaiden is as much about keeping the audience on our toes as it is about revealing deeper insights. What is more precious than money? What is true knowledge? Can you really control someone else? Best laid plans can be crushed by the unpredictable forces of love and desire. At the same time, I am grateful for a film that does not have a moral agenda or an important message to impart, but for the satisfying delight of a good yarn, well told.
Nowadays, it's rare to find a decent film that has a powerful erotic element. But in The Handmaiden the sex works. In contrast to a movie like Blue Is The Warmest Color, where the sex scenes became porno tableaus disembodied from the rest of the story, here the lovers bring their characters to the erotic action. What we know about them helps make the scenes a necessary part of the story, casting light or shadows on the characters, depending on whose point of view we are looking at.
Park is known for his notoriously violent movies like Oldboy, and he can't restrain himself from showing a bit of grisly torture towards the end. However, he has a prodigious visual imagination and the movie is not only gorgeous in its cinematography and production design, but in how confidently Park tells the story with images.