“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naive” intones Sook-Hee in this, the new feature from Park Chan-Wook. It’s a line which will not only come to be a pertinent warning to the central protagonists, but could very well apply to any fans watching who are familiar with Wook’s oeuvre. Just as characters’ presumptions are ripped out from under their feet, about half an hour into his latest offering you’ll be thinking that the director of such provocative fare as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance was aiming for a new, broader audience.After ninety minutes you’ll be cursing your own naivety as a conventionally told tale of entrapment and treachery – albeit a very compelling one – soon begins to push the kind of buttons and boundaries Chan-Wook is renowned for. The film, like its central characters, is never one thing. If it were a novel (the film is based on Sarah Walters’s book Fingersmith) it would be both airplane read and literary landmark. A guilty pleasure and a prestige piece, a marriage of a Joint Security Area political commentary and an Oldboy corridor beating. The Handmaiden is a genre-blending, beautiful-looking slice of erotic cinema, peppered with the kind of imagery and dreamlike violence only the Korean auteur could pull off.
Tae Ri Kim plays Sook Hee, a young thief tasked by the duplicitous Count to take the titular job of handmaiden for Lady Sideko, a Japanese heiress sitting on a substantial inheritance. His plan is to use Sook Hee to gain an in with Sideko in a bid to marry and eventually discard her after defrauding her of her riches. The plan soon begins to take shape until Sook-Hee finds herself falling for Sideko. Whether the feeling is mutual, the Counts scheme comes to full fruition or how a sinister, controlling Uncle with a penchant for erotica and octopi factors in to all of this are spoilers I won’t go into here. Surprises and about-turns are plentiful both in plot and narrative structure. Fans of Bound or Gone Girl, similar slices of sex and double-dealing will find notable comparisons to both. Think the love, lust, deception and female empowerment of the former coupled with the end-of-act U-turns and unreliable narrative of the latter, filtered through a corsets and gloves costume drama.
However, whereas both the Wachowksi’s excellent debut feature and David Fincher’s 2015 hit both maintained a hardened, unflinching cynicism for the duration of their runtime, The Handmaiden is surprisingly sweet. The pro-longed sex and torture sequences proving to be merely guides through what is essentially a sincere and touching love story. Neither of these elements feel exploitative or gratuitous. The intimate scenes between the two female leads as sensitive as they are graphic with Wook opting for tenderness over titillation. Indeed, one of the film’s most oddly erotic scenes involves nothing more than one characters gentle nursing of another’s sore tooth. Likewise, the violence is earned and serves as a jarring reminder that were in Chan-Wooks dizzying world and not just any period piece.
Jung Woo Ha’s turn as the Count is impressive; simultaneously creepy and caddish, the character is pitched perfectly somewhere between both a pathetic bounder never as ahead in the game as he thinks and a genuinely amoral villain willing to destroy lives for financial gain. His chemistry with Sideko, particularly in the films second act, is palpable. Min See Kim’s portrayal as both innocent, sexless hermit under the rule of her shadowy Uncle and then later something more akin to femme-fatale is equally commendable. It’s newcomer Tae Ri Kim however, who impresses the most. In a performance which could have been swallowed by her showier co-stars, she keeps the pieces moving whilst eliciting both scorn and sympathy from the viewer – her character acting as both audience chaperone and apex of the twisted triangle that herself, the charismatic villain and the unwitting mark all make up.
If the film has a flaw it’s the two and a half hours running time. It’s a sprawling affair with a laid-back pace. Granted this is helped along by a clear, distinguishable three act (or part as the literal cue cards tell us) structure which adds a certain digestibility to the epic canvas. There’s never a particularly dull moment but for what is a fairly straightforward thriller at its core, it feels at least twenty minutes too long, despite its taut plotting. Small gripes though which almost feel unfair to such an entertaining, thrilling and surprising ride. Add to that some pertinent themes of patriarchal rule, feminism and escaping one’s fate and you have what may well be Chan-Wook’s strongest work since his seminal Vengeance trilogy.